Tuesday, 10 December 2013

P-P-Pick up a penguin...

By Becca Miller, Conservation Biology student at Plymouth University

I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa and completed the 6-month Seabird Care and Conservation internship (January-July 2013) with SANCCOB (The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) as part of my placement year with the university. There are other internships available: for more information you can visit the SANCCOB website (www.sanccob.co.za) and look at the volunteering tab for the internship section to read more about what’s available. 

Working with birds, in particular penguins, has been a dream of mine for years, so after the placement talk in second year in which two former students spoke about their time at SANCCOB, it was an easy decision as to whether I’d be taking a placement year or not. Being able to play a part in the rehabilitation of such endangered species was very exciting and seemed like a valuable way to spend my placement year.  Moving so far away from home for so long on my own was a worry, but not for long. I was soon very busy, surrounded by penguins, other seabirds and working with volunteers from all over the world.   

I got to work with a number of different species of seabirds (African Penguin, Gulls , Cormorants, Gannets, Pelicans, Petrels and more), feeding, tubing and medicating them. As an intern I soon was put in charge of other volunteers and very quickly felt an important part of the team. Birds are admitted for a whole range of reasons from oiling, to chick and egg abandonment. You get to see and help treat a whole variety of different illnesses and injuries.

A typical day involves medicating, feeding, swimming and hydrating the birds. You also have to update the daily records for each individual bird so the vet and rehabilitation manager can keep track of their progress and adjust treatment accordingly.  I also worked in the Chick Rearing Unit for 3 months which has a different routine from the main centre. Chicks are fed every 3 hours from 6am to 9pm. I have never worked so hard in my whole life but the long hours were definitely repaid by being able to watch tiny penguins hatch and then go through the rehabilitation process until the stage they are fit to be released. Tapping an egg and hearing the tiny cheeping from the inside is just amazing. Even more amazing is when you watch the tiny chick kick its way out of the egg and you are the first to see them. A highlight of my time there was being able to help release 7 healthy penguins back into the wild off a boat by Robben Island. Seeing the end result of all the hard work you’ve put in as they swim away to their natural habitat is just incredible and certainly makes it all worthwhile. Another highlight was getting to meet and feed penguins with my childhood hero Michaela Strachan, as she was filming a series about African Penguins. She made everyone penguin shaped cookies as well, bonus.

I was given a 6 month training plan, and had regular meetings with my mentor to track my progress. By the end of my time I was able to feed, medicate and admit all the different bird species. I could train other volunteers on the basic procedures of the centre, I got to do some blood work and analysis in the lab, and learnt about all the different stages of the life cycle of the African Penguin.

The work was tough, physically and emotionally, and I am now covered in scars (penguins bite hard), but it was all completely worth it. I have grown in confidence, improved leadership, timekeeping and communication skills, as well as learning all about how to care for and conserve these endangered and vulnerable species. It has now affirmed for me that a career in the conservation field is definitely something I want to pursue. I am very thankful to everyone involved for making my 6 months there the best ever, teaching me so much and making it such an enjoyable experience. I miss all the fat fluffy faces and have already booked plane tickets back to beautiful Cape Town for the Christmas break and will certainly be visiting SANCCOB during that time.

My advice to any students thinking of undertaking this placement is to be prepared to work very hard. There is a lot of physical work involved and at certain times of year it is necessary to work long hours due to the volume of birds in the centre. Bring plenty of old clothes as you will leave work covered in bird poo and fish guts every day. I’d also recommend going for the 6 month internship rather than the 3 month one as it gives far more opportunity for learning more skills and gaining more responsibility. 

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