Dozens of rare penguins have been killed by a bee swarm in South Africa, in what conservation experts have described as a freak accident.
More than 60 African penguins have been found dead on Boulders Beach near Cape Town, many with bee stings around their eyes, an unprecedented event according to researchers.
The Coastal Bird Conservation Foundation of Southern Africa said in a statement that it suspected a honeycomb had been disturbed in the area. While penguins have been stung by bees in the past, the foundation said it had not seen an incident of this magnitude.
Katta Ludynia, research director at the foundation, said her team initially believed a predator was behind the deaths. But autopsies revealed that neither a predator nor a disease was to blame, but instead found bee stings in the birds’ eyes.
“And then our vet went back to the scene and found dead bees on that part of the beach,” she said.
Foundation rangers at Boulders Beach Penguin Colony will now closely monitor the nests to see if the birds had eggs or chicks. If so, they will step in to rescue them for hand breeding, the foundation said.
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“The African penguin population is declining rapidly and it is very sad to see the deaths of so many healthy and very likely breeding adults,” said Dr David Roberts, the foundation’s clinical veterinarian.
“This unusual event is part of what can happen in a normal balanced ecosystem and if the penguins weren’t already in trouble it wouldn’t be such a tragedy.”
There are 10,300 breeding pairs of African penguins left in South Africa and the foundation says around 40,000 breeding pairs have been lost in the past 20 years.
“The main threats to African penguins are lack of food, competition with industrial fishing for limited resources, increased maritime traffic, oil spills and pollution, climate change, extreme weather events, diseases, predation and many others, not bees, ”Ludynia mentioned.
Only about a third of all chicks that leave all colonies will survive their first year at sea due to a lack of food, she said. “It is a tragedy and it will lead to the extinction of the species.”
The foundation calls for the restriction of fishing around large breeding colonies of African penguins.