Establishing a new African Penguin Colony

Christina Hagen is a conservationist who works at BirdLife South Africa. Her focus is the African penguin. She’s in the midst of creating a new colony for these birds. Christina is part of Experiment’s ongoing Seabirds Challenge.

Christina, could you give us a brief introduction to who you are?

I work for BirdLife South Africa, a conservation NGO that focuses on bird conservation. My focus is on conserving the African penguin. I have a Master’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Cape Town.

Did you always know you wanted to study conservation biology?

I think from when I was in my teens I had always been interested in science, outdoors, and nature. I guess I was influenced a lot by, I know it sounds cliche but, people like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough.

Why did you choose to study seabirds as opposed to other animals?

Seabirds are just pretty amazing animals. They make a living on both the land and the sea, and are an easier way to study the ocean without the difficulty of looking beneath the surface. You can get an idea of the state of the ecosystem by studying the seabirds.

African Penguins can reach speeds of up to 20 km/h while hunting, and can dive as deep as 60 m for 2.5 minutes.

What was your first experience in seabird research and how did you get that opportunity?

My first experience was during my Master’s. I studied the Cape Gannet, which is another seabird in South Africa. I was comparing foraging characteristics and physiology between two colonies where they had different prey. That opportunity came about through my Master’s supervisors and I just loved being on the island, watching birds and getting up close to them. I learned a bit then about how to conserve them.

The Cape Gannet, another seabird in South Africa.

Who was your advisor in your Master’s program at University of Cape Town and how did you choose your advisor?

I actually had 3 advisors. One was Dr. Lorien Pichegru, Professor Peter Ryan, from the University of Cape Town, and another from France, Dr. David Grémillet. I chose the project first because I was really interested in it and these 3 supervisors had proposed it.

An African penguin saying hello.

When did you start working at BirdLife South Africa?

I started 6 years ago, actually working on a different project that wasn’t that related to seabirds — it was running ecotours. Then a position became available to work on penguins and I jumped at the chance.

What does an average day look like for you now?

It’s hard to say what an average day is since it changes quite a lot. Unfortunately I am in the office most of the time. I do a lot of fundraising and at the moment because we are trying to establish a new penguin colony, there are a lot of meetings with the government and the local conservation authority to get permission for the site that we want to use. I do get to go out to do site visits to potential sites. Now that we’ve pretty much chosen our sites, I’m looking forward to getting out in the field to put up the camera traps and hopefully get this project going.

Let’s talk about the current project you’re raising funds for. For those learning about this project for the first time, can you briefly explain what the funds for your Experiment campaign will go towards?

The funds will go towards purchasing camera traps and the equipment that goes with it in order for us to monitor potential penguin predators at the two sites we’re interested in for establishing a new African penguin colony. The camera traps will be useful for 2 reasons.

The first is before any penguins even come to the site, monitoring what predators are there so that we know what predator deterrents to put in place. The second reason is when the penguins start breeding there, we will need to continue monitoring them in a less invasive way and also keep monitoring if any predators get into the colony.

African Penguins at Boulders Beach

How did you come up with the idea to create a new African Penguin colony? You said it’s never been done before?

It’s never been done for African penguins. It has been attempted in Australia for Little penguins. The idea has been floating around for a while, but no one had really put it into practice because they didn’t have the funding and also when it was first proposed, people thought it was quite a drastic step to take and one that wasn’t necessary at the time. With the drastic decreases in the penguin population we’ve seen recently though, we’re very concerned about the future of these colonies so we think this, if it works, will be a boost to the African penguin population.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I think when I was really young, like 6 or 7, I wanted to be a farmer. I wanted to be outdoors. And then it kind of morphed into wanting to go out and study animals in the wild.

What one piece of advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

I would say look for opportunities to get out in the field and do what you love. Don’t be held back by fears that you won’t be able to find a job in conservation. If it’s something that you love, you will be able to make an opportunity for yourself.

You can support Christina or ask her questions about her project on her Experiment page here.