July 8: Last week, the South African government was engaged in a very important task – transporting 19,000 penguins from their home in Dassen Island near Cape Town, to safe waters. It was an emergency.

Operation Rescue of Penguins [Illustration by Kusum Chamoli]
Operation Rescue of Penguins [Illustration by Kusum Chamoli]

The short legged, big bodied birds with pointed beaks did not have the “cute” look that we always see in them. Most of them were covered in slimy oil. Their feathers hung limply by their sides. They were unable to do anything – even eat, and had gone hungry for three days.

There was a simple reason for their sorry state. On June 23, a huge ship called The Treasures sank off Cape Town. The ship was carrying a cargo of 400 tonnes of fuel oil. When it sank, it spilled all that oil into the sea.

As the oil spread over vast sheets of water, it spelt disaster for the 56,000 penguins for whom Dassen Island has been a home for a long time. In fact it is the world’s second largest breeding colony of African penguins, says a report in ‘The Indian Express’ newspaper.

Just one part oil mixed in a million parts of water makes drinking water smell and taste funny. This was 400 tonnes of fuel oil floating on water! An oil spill is any country’s nightmare today for it is almost impossible to control the manner in which it pollutes the seas and destroys the food sources of all water organisms – birds, animals and insects. Moreover, any clean-up operation is terribly expensive.

So there they were — 16,000 penguins, their feathers dripping oil, looking uncomfortable on land, unable to be in oil-coated water. And unable to eat any fish, for the fish were oily too.

That’s when the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) got into action. Its job is to protect the lives of water birds in any emergency. They began to take the birds away by plane and boats to safer waters. They also loaded 3000 penguins into sheep trucks and sent them to the far-away Port Elizabeth Sea. About 380 rescuers were put in charge of cleaning and feeding the oil-covered birds.

Removing so many birds from their habitat and transporting them to another, is no easy task. Which is why many experts are calling this rescue mission as the biggest-ever.

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Readability: Grade 6 (11-12 year old children)
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Filed under: world news
Tags: #birds, #african, #feathers, #penguins

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