The Boulders African Penguin colony is situated just south of Simon’s Town on the False Bay coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Every day it is visited by thousands of people from all over the world, the vast majority of whom leave deeply enriched by the experience.
Boulders is a busy place, both for the penguins and their many admirers. In their boldly patterned formal attire, the land-bound birds either hobble and hop about the domes of grey granite that give the place its name, squabble in brief but heinous bouts of bill- and flipper-wielding anger, huddle in amorous couples on the beach or in the dense bush that lines the shore, or stand like abbreviated zombies, eyes half-closed and shedding handfuls of fluff from moulting, moth-eaten plumage. The birds in the water are quite different – skilfully negotiating the froth-filled swell as they socialise and bathe close to the shore, porpoising swiftly out to sea in well-orchestrated foraging parties, or slicing through the blue-glass of unbroken waves on their way back to the beach.
For the people looking on the penguins are sometimes magical, most-times hysterically funny, and almost always cute beyond measure. They are slap-stick comedians of the highest order, forever bumping into things, falling over or braying crudely at each other and the world. Their stiff, chaplin-esque waddle is guaranteed to raise a smile, and their general demeanour is ludicrously endearing. There’s just something about penguins that triggers a warm response in people – they are one of nature’s ultimate purveyors of feel-good.
All the more ironic that as fast as people churn through the Boulders turnstiles for their dose of penguin endearment, the African Penguin as a species is in free-fall towards extinction. About a century ago the offshore islands of southwestern Africa were home to more than 1.5 million breeding pairs of these birds, sustained by a seemingly endless supply of small pelagic fish. But the massive shoals of anchovy and sardine have since been decimated by decades of rampant and unsustainable commercial fishing, and the penguins are quite literally being starved to death. Today probably fewer than 20 000 breeding pairs remain. So just 100 years of careless, ignorant, unthinking humanity has whittled African Penguin numbers down to just 1% of what they were before the industrial revolution. And this precipitous downward trend is showing no signs of letting up.
How can we be so entranced, engaged and entertained by another animal and yet be so tacitly accepting of its imminent demise…? This paradox is duplicated many, many times over worldwide as people consume, construct, degrade and destroy the lifeblood of the planet on which we are completely dependent, causing untold, irreversible collateral damage to other, more genuinely smart lifeforms than our own. Unless we are able to somehow change our ways – step in line with the way the earth works instead of raging against natural process and harmony – species like the African Penguin will very soon be lost. And as the global red-list of threatened species gets longer and longer, Homo sapiens draws ever closer to its own, catastrophic end.