20 years after the MV Treasure oil spill

Posted by Anita Froneman on 24 June 2020

The cargo ship MV Treasure sank off the coast of Cape Town on June 23, 2000. It caused an oil spill that nearly wiped out the African penguin population in an environmental disaster that shook the world.

The vessel was transporting iron ore from China to Brazil and sank due to damage caused to the ship during bad weather. It was carrying an estimated 1,300 tons of fuel oil. The ship sank about 9.7 km off the coast between Robben Island and Dassen Island.

As a result, an estimated 19,000 penguins were oiled, according to a UCT research paper. Clean up missions commenced soon after, and another 19,500 clean penguins were caught at Dassen and Robben islands and relocated to Port Elizabeth, to remove them from waters affected by the oil.

The paper further states that about 3,000 orphaned penguin chicks were saved and kept for artificial rearing, but a massive estimated 4,000 died before they could be rescued.

The penguins were not the only victims. Up to 20% of the bank cormorants of Robben Island – the 3rd largest colony in South Africa – died.

Other birds affected by the oil were the Cape cormorant, crowned cormorant, great (White-breasted) cormorant, kelp gull, Hartlaub’s gull and swift tern.

Any animal that gets covered in oil is in immediate danger. ‘Unless rescued, they will eventually starve,’ the paper states. ‘Oil ingested by preening can cause ulceration of the mouth, oesophagus and stomach, and in severe cases can lead to substantial blood loss. Oil absorbed into the system can cause red blood cells to rupture, leading to anaemia.’

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) was largely responsible for the rescue mission to save the affected animals. About 45,000 volunteers stepped in to help, according to Cape Town Etc.

‘When the call went out, the people of Cape Town and the world mobilised like never before,’ writes swimmer and environmentalist Lewis Pugh on his website.

‘Cleaning oil off a penguin is no easy task; they have razor-sharp beaks, and they aren’t always grateful for the laundry service – as many a bloodied volunteer can attest,’ he adds.

The heroic efforts of that year saved the African penguin population from destruction and SANCCOB has been doing wonderful conservation work for years.

Despite this, 20 years later, there are only about 21,000 breeding pairs of African penguins left in the world and the numbers keep declining.

To learn more about SANCCOB and the work they do or get involved, visit here.


Image credit: Twitter/IntBirdRescue


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