129 oiled African penguins from Luderitz in Namibia via road � an epic journey of 1 300 kilometers � for rehabilitation at SANCCOB centre in Cape Town.Pic: ESA ALEXANDER. 21/04/2009. � SUNDAY TIMES
Britain this week sent an urgent diplomatic Mayday to the Department of International Relations, appealing for South Africa's help in dealing with the environmental disaster unfolding near the remote British island of Tristan da Cunha.
The bulk carrier MS Olivia ran aground off the uninhabited island of Nightingale 11 days ago, releasing an oil slick that could spell doom for the estimated 40000 northern rockhopper penguins that breed there.
Because Tristan da Cunha has no landing strip for aircraft, the only country able to send help in time is South Africa, 2800km away. A fast vessel would take four days to make the voyage.
This week South African sea bird rescue experts were waiting for a suitable ship to be provided.
Said Venessa Strauss, chief executive officer of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob): " The biggest concern at the moment is the delay in the response. The longer before we get on the ground and get ourselves sorted out, the more chance we have of losing birds. There's a real urgency to get there, and we're really just waiting for the transport to be sorted out."
Strauss said more than 60% of the global northern rockhopper population was at risk. "They're endemic to those islands. It really is a devastating environmental threat to them," she said.
The Sanccob team of about a dozen will concentrate on cleaning up penguins and other sea birds fouled by oil. South Africa's help will also be needed in trying to contain and mop up the slick.
Conservationists fear that apart from spilling fuel oil, the Olivia - which had been taking soya beans from Brazil to Asia - might have been carrying rats. These would desert the sinking ship and cause havoc on the island by feeding on eggs or fledgling birds.
All 22 crew were rescued from the Olivia, which is now breaking up and cannot be salvaged.