In June 2000 the MV ‘Treasure’ sank off Cape Town, spilling 400 tons of bunker oil, imperilling an entire population of African penguins. The response effort, led by South African non-profit SANCCOB, was the largest animal rescue in history.
It’s no secret that I love penguins. They’re my favourite animal on this planet and never fail to make me smile. Perhaps none more so than the African penguin, which stars in the largest animal rescue effort of all time.
It happened this week 20 years ago, and it’s an incredible endeavour worth commemorating. Because were it not for SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), this African penguin population would have been wiped out.
On 23 June 2000, the ship MV ‘Treasure’ was carrying iron ore from China to Brazil. As it rounded the Cape, it sank off Cape Town in heavy seas, spilling 400 toxic tons of bunker oil.
Bunker oil is a serious contaminant because of its density and toxicity, and this spill could not have been in a more sensitive place: the area between Robben and Dassen Islands hosts the world’s third largest African penguin colony.
The African penguin was already in trouble. At the turn of the last century there were 4 million African penguins. By 2000, there were just 100,000 left.
What happened on this day 20 years ago wasn’t just about the numbers, it was also about heart. It was about the incredible things that happen when people rally together around a cause.
When the call went out, the people of Cape Town and the world mobilised like never before. While emergency oil clean-up operations began at sea, ordinary members of the public rushed to SANCCOB’s headquarters to help clean and feed rescued penguins.
Cleaning oil off a penguin is no easy task; they have razor-sharp beaks, and they aren’t always grateful for the laundry service – as many a bloodied volunteer can attest.
And yet over the next 12 weeks, 45,000 volunteers, supervised by 130 professionals, cleaned and fed 20,000 penguins. They went through 400 tons of fish and used over 7,500 litres of detergent to wash off all the oil.
Another 20,000 birds, which had managed to avoid the oil slicks, were relocated over 600km away near Port Elizabeth. (An amazing addendum to the story is that they all swam home from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, arriving back just as the clean-up operations were complete!)
Imagine where the African penguin population would be today if SANCCOB hadn’t successfully rescued those 40,000 birds 20 years ago?
We want to celebrate the incredible work SANCCOB does, which is why this week, I’m handing over all my social media platforms to them – so they can tell their story to you.
You’ll hear from penguin lovers, ornithologists, and ordinary people who did extraordinary work on the ground with the penguins during those 12 weeks.
Sadly, it won’t all be good news. Despite their continued efforts, the African penguin population has continued to drop. They face the combined threats of pollution, climate change and industrial overfishing.
On the brink
Today there are just 20,000 breeding pairs of African penguins left in the world.
African penguins are fighting for their lives, and so are the organisations dedicated to supporting them. As a non-profit, SANCCOB relies on public donations for its on-going rescue and rehabilitation work. During the Covid-19 pandemic, as our collective attention has turned to human struggles, their task has been made even more difficult. A small monthly donation will make all the difference.
The penguin is a potent symbol of the combined threats to our oceans. These don’t only threaten the penguin, but ultimately affect all of us. Because what is happening in our environment poses an existential threat to life on earth.
I know that can feel overwhelming, but there is something significant that you can do: help our African penguins, and give the species a fighting chance.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans.