Having had the absolute pleasure of visiting South Africa this summer (winter) I think it would be churlish not to allow my little blog to wander from the strict confines of South Devon for a few posts…
As a wildlife spotting destination you can’t go too far wrong with South Africa. Having spent some time in the north (more on that later) we ended up in Cape Town where we found the stunning Protea in flower.
The size of a dinner plate with so many petal layers it is unlike any of my native flora and I was very sad not to have my macro lens to hand to capture the structures of the petals.
Don’t let the sunny setting fool you, this is a changeable time of year to visit Cape Town – most days were rainy and cold – including the day we went in search of the African Penguin.
The Penguins can be found behind an unpromising looking car park, down what looks like a residential street. Perhaps at one time they were a slightly unusual neighbour to the local (human) residents but the introduction of a pay wall hopefully protects their vulnerable dune habitat from erosion and development. With their funny pink eyebrows and characteristic tuxedo jackets these are beautiful animals.
The African Penguin used to be called the Jackass Penguin – not for any especially idiotic antics but for their donkey like laugh. I like the name African penguin better, especially since it is the only penguin to breed in Africa – it would seem to be entitled to the name. Unlike a lot of their relatives, the African penguin has to deal with extremes of heat instead of cold. It is for this reason that they are usually easier to look after in temperate zoos – and why they are quite numerous in captivity. This ubiquity is misleading though as they are listed as vulnerable by IUCN and populations have declined since 2008. Their key threats? A classic cocktail of habitat loss, food availability and disturbance. Specifically tourism.
That raises an interesting dilemma – If I had known about the impact of tourism on the colony would that have stopped me going to see them? The boardwalks overlooking the colony and nest sites were very well used, and we were but one of many tour groups that day. The noise, the pollution, the disturbance of the penguin seeking, camera toting humans must be quite considerable. And yet – the experience of seeing an animal up close in it’s natural habitat, smelling it even, it leaves a memory and creates an impression that lasts well beyond any article or indirect contact. If everyone left with a deeper appreciation for the unique African Penguin then I would be confident in saying yes, the impact is worth the risk. We know this probably isn’t true, but what if half left with a greater sense of the value and ‘special-ness’ of wildlife? A quarter? What kind of a value tips wildlife tourism into the red? We can subscribe to the mantra to ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’ but that ignores the impact we can have just by being there.
For me, having made the pilgrimage, I was content to sit quietly and watch. The weather put a lot of people off watching for long, retreating back into the bowels of their coaches. But, like the penguins, I stood outside a while longer. With the wind whipping inland from the sea the smell of the burrows was temporarily blown away. The waves rose up, showing surfing penguins through the brief glassy green window before breaking onto the white sand – the thin line where a raft becomes a waddle.
Watching two individuals step aside from the group they began mimicking one another. Then one stood still and the other walked around them in their slow shuffling walk. When they returned to face their partner the other one set off instead. It seemed like a pair bond ritual. As a monogamous species this could be a couple retaking their vows to reaffirm their relationship. I ducked out and left them alone on the beach – that is until the next coach comes along.