Zoo penguins move to new exhibit

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Zoo said Thursday that its collection of African penguins has begun moving to the Africa Rocks exhibit, which is scheduled to open to the public in phases beginning next week.

A group of five penguins in the zoo’s animal ambassador program moved over to the Cape Fynbos penguin habitat first, and 15 more acquired from various other zoos and aquariums joined them one day later.

“We are thrilled to see the new group of birds integrating so well with the animal ambassadors,” said Joop Kuhn, animal care manager of the zoo’s Bird Department. “African penguins are colony birds, so after the ambassador group met the new penguins, they led the others around the space, both on the beach and in the pool.”

He said he’s looking forward to raising awareness of the African penguin’s endangered status and building a local population.

The penguin habitat features a cobblestone beach surface, penguin nesting areas and rockwork that mimics the granite boulders found at Boulders Beach in South Africa. The 70-foot-long and 10-foot-wide habitat also includes a 200,000-gallon pool for the penguins that stretches 170 feet, with depths up to 13 feet.

It’s the largest penguin habitat in the zoo’s history, and is scheduled to be opened to the public on July 1. Other attractions in Africa Rocks will open in upcoming weeks.

The zoo, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, said the African penguin population plunged from about 1 million breeding pairs 28 years ago to 23,000 now, because of commercial harvesting of eggs and guano.

While the practice was abolished many years ago, penguins are struggling with a diminished food supply, pollution, climate change and predators.