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Saving Endangered Species in South Africa

It is no surprise The Florida Aquarium’s Michelle Uhlig would spend her off-time working with animals.  Like virtually all the Aquarium’s staff, the senior biologist in the Wetlands gallery is devoted to wildlife on and off the job.

Uhlig’s dedication recently took her halfway across the world. She traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent three weeks working with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB.

Uhlig obviously could have found a worthy conservation effort closer to home, but she felt a special responsibility to aid SANCCOB.

 

“There are so many people in Africa living in poverty that they don’t have a lot of money to give to nonprofit sanctuaries,” she explained. “They really depend on help from outside their country.”

SANCCOB was formed in 1968 to treat Africa penguins suffering from oil spills because of increased tanker traffic.The spills continue to plague the waters off South Africa. Through the years, the organization has treated more than 95,000 birds and 54 different species.

A key concern for SANCCOB is the African penguin, which Uhlig said is threatened by “habitat destruction, overfishing and oil spills.”According to SANCCOB, only 22,000 breeding pairs of African penguins remain. So the organization’s treatment of 1,500 penguins a year is significant. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) cites research that found that the African penguin population is 19 percent higher than what it would have been without SANCCOB’s labors.

The group also collects abandoned eggs and has incubated, hand-reared and released more than 5,000 penguin chicks in recent years.

SANCCOB reports the chicks’ “unconventional upbringing has no effect on the penguins’ subsequent behavior and survival.” They swim, hunt, mate and rear their young like naturally reared birds. Among Uhlig’s tasks was to “feed, clean and medicate the penguins.” She held the penguins for exams and had to get them into a pool to swim three times a day. This wasn’t easy.

 

“They tried to bite all the time,” Uhlig said. “You had to be careful to keep their feathers clean to stay waterproof. And you had to be quiet around them. They are pretty strong birds and try to wiggle away from you while you are holding them.”

 

However, the payoff came when she was able to “release seven recuperated penguins back to the Stony Point penguin colony” near Cape Town.She also tended some rockhopper penguins, which like African penguins are “very noisy and comical.” Beyond habitat destruction and pollution threats, nature itself is not always kind to the flightless bird.

During her time at SANCCOB, Uhlig said, “10 penguins came in with injuries from a caracal [wildcat] attack.”

 

Penguins are not the only patients.


Uhlig also treated “lots of cape cormorants, Kelp and Hartlaub’s gulls, both adults and chicks, swift terns, a black oystercatcher and a Cape gannet. The gannet had a broken leg. There were some gulls with botulism, and lots of weak and emaciated Cape cormorant juveniles.” She stayed near the SANCCOB facility, “which is right on the Rietvlei Nature Reserve. It is a wetlands habitat with lots of flamingos, great white pelicans, ducks and wading birds.”

She said everyone complied with strict water regulations made necessary by water shortages from population growth and a record drought that may be the result of climate change. Plans have been prepared for a “Day Zero” when the government would shut off public water supply to homes.

Uhlig found the SANCCOB staff, like her Aquarium colleagues, supportive and dedicated. She “worked with volunteers from Germany, England, Brazil, Malaysia, France and Russia.” 

Uhlig, who has a bachelor’s degree in zoology, has been at the Aquarium seven-and-a half years. She previously worked at another aquarium and at a wild bird rehabilitation center. She was abundantly qualified for SANCCOB’s selective Animal Professional Program and understandably was accepted when she applied to participate.

Uhlig said nurturing the injured birds back to health was incredibly gratifying. The South Africa experience also enhanced her Florida Aquarium work, as she explained,

“I wanted to learn more about the penguins in their natural environment to better tell their story to our guests.”

Now when she tells visitors about the African penguin’s plight, she will speak from first-hand experience.

 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.