It's a long way from Wales, but researchers at Aberystwyth University are at the forefront of an international project to save the African penguin from extinction.

The birds' numbers have fallen dramatically over recent decades, with populations in southern Africa decimated by myriad reasons including over-fishing and environmental changes.

Today there are fewer than 20,000 breeding pairs – less than three per cent of the numbers that were to be found 100 years ago.

Aberystwyth University's leading role in the project is underpinned by its commitment to conservation around the globe, not only by funding international collaborations but by putting its researchers in the thick of the action, such as using drone technology to monitor penguin colonies and studying parasites that may be devastating the birds' populations.

Experts warn the African penguin could become extinct within the next 80 years, driven by industrial fishing, changes to their habitats, and excessive collection of their eggs and guano (droppings used as fertiliser).

Aberystwyth has joined three other universities, the South Africa National Parks authority and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, to carry out the project, which so far has sampled birds from colonies in Namibia and South Africa.


Professor Darrell Abernethy, Head of the new Veterinary School at Aberystwyth University and one of the African Penguin Health Project’s founders, said the project used the latest science and would be "of essential importance to conserve this iconic species".

He added: "Little is known about the effect of disease and other health threats on the sustainability of the population. An outbreak of avian influenza in 2018 and 2019 killed hundreds of birds and showed how colonies can be affected by the disease.

"To learn more about these effects, we have recruited leading experts to undertake a series of studies to obtain and analyse critical data in order to support agencies as they work towards a common goal: saving the African penguin from extinction."

The unversity's role in the project follows what Prof Abernathy called a "one health approach" – the idea that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment.

It follows the university's similar involvement in many other international conservation projects. Professor Paul Shaw has been researching tuna stocks and fisheries in South Africa, and professors Jon Moorby and Mariecia Fraser's studies of conserving upland grassland systems have involved research in Colombia and Peru.

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