1,700 endangered Cape cormorant chicks rescued from Robben Island

A handful of Cape Cormorant chicks which were rescued from Robben Island during a massive two-day joint operation.
Image: NSRI

Nearly 1,700 abandoned Cape cormorant chicks were rescued from Robben Island during a two-day joint operation between various marine and wildlife stakeholders.

The huge undertaken was carried out by members of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the Robben Island Museum (RIM), the Two Oceans Aquarium and the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In a combined statement on Wednesday the organisations said an investigation had been launched to determine possible reasons as to why the chicks had been abandoned. SANCCOB research manager Dr Katta Ludynia said they suspected a lack of food to be the main reason.

“Cape cormorants feed mainly on anchovy, and to a smaller extent sardines, and these small pelagic fish species are at very low levels at the moment.

Dozens of boxes carrying abandoned Cape Cormorant chicks were ferried from Robben Island.
Image: NSRI

“We are seeing dramatic population declines in all seabird species that rely on these fish species: the African penguin, the Cape gannet and Cape cormorant are all listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and lack of sufficient food is the primary factor for the most recent declines observed.”

Thabo Seshoka, RIM’s head of heritage and research, said the abandonment was unusual and that quick intervention helped ensure the birds’ best chance of survival.

“It’s an anomaly that both RIM and SANCCOB are studying. Annually, 186 bird species (including the endangered African Penguin) breed on the island, which underpins the need for responsible tourism on the marine protected area and World Heritage Site.”

On admission to SANCCOB’s seabird hospital, each chick was weighed and hydrated to quickly stabilise it and reduce its stress, then placed in a designated pen according to its weight.

A complete veterinary assessment was then conducted on each chick. A small number of birds could not be saved but the vast majority — nearly 1 700 chicks, each weighing between 150g and 600g — are being cared for.

The estimated 3,000 breeding pairs of Cape cormorants on the island usually each hatch two to three chicks each summer, so the abandonment put thousands of chicks at risk.

This rescue operation is likely to be the second-biggest seabird rescue in the Western Cape, since the MV Treasure oil spill in 2000.

by Orrin Singh

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