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Conservationists are building ceramic nests to help endangered African penguins

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A new form of real estate is popping up along the beaches of South Africa and on the dry, barren islands off its coast – tiny white beach huts. With good ventilation and a sea view, they are just big enough to fit a family of African penguins. Their unique selling point: a safe and cool place for penguins to breed.

In a report as part of Call to Earth, CNN meets the conservationists behind the African Penguin Nest Project.

African penguins thrive in the cold currents of the South Atlantic Ocean. But when they come to land, their thick black coat absorbs the heat, and they desperately look for cover – both for themselves and their fragile eggs. Historically, the penguins dug burrows in layers of guano – accumulated seabird and bat faeces – that lined Africa’s penguin colonies, but in the 19th century, traders started selling guano as fertiliser, leaving the penguins and their eggs increasingly exposed to predators and the scorching sun.

This, combined with other threats such as egg poaching, overfishing and climate change, has caused African penguin populations to plummet.

The African Penguin Nest Project is a coordinated effort between Dallas Zoo, AZA Safe, the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and the Dyer Island Conservation Trust – which aims to deploy artificial nests to give penguin parents a safe and shaded place to raise their chicks.

The project started to deploy the nests in late 2018. “Within a matter of minutes, penguins were running into them,” says Kevin Graham, associate curator of birds and ectotherms at Dallas Zoo and coordinator of the African Penguin Nest Project. “That tells you how desperate they are for any opportunity to find a safe place to nest.”

Graham says that population recovery depends on more than just giving African penguins a safe place to breed. It’s not simply a case of “we give them a nest, the species is saved,” he says. “It’s a big part of it, but there has to be more.”

To date, the African Penguin Nest Project has installed more than 1,500 nests across five of South Africa’s penguin colonies, and plans to expand into Namibia next year, the only other country with breeding populations of the species.

“This is still just a drop in the bucket,” says Graham, who anticipates they will need to deploy at least 4,500 more ceramic homes to protect penguins currently nesting in exposed areas. “The goal is that every penguin that needs a nest will get one.”

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