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Oil Spill Response Limited Oil Spill Response Limited
  • Article
  • Response

The Treasure Oil Spill – 20 Years On

What one of the largest animal rescue missions in history can tell us about wildlife response preparedness.

  • By Paul Kelway
  • Jun 23, 2020
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The Treasure Oil Spill – 20 years on

On 23 June 2020, we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Treasure oil spill, which resulted in the contamination of 19,000 African penguins and one of the largest oiled wildlife response efforts in history20 years on, what is the current status of the African penguin population, and what can this successful rescue effort tell us about wildlife response preparedness good practice?

The MV Treasure sank 9.7km off the coast of South Africa, close to the (then) world’s largest breeding colonies of African penguins, Robben Island and Dassen IslandThe cargo vessel was carrying iron ore from China and en route to Brazil when it suffered structural damage, a hole in her hull occurred due to severe weather. An attempt to tug the vessel to the harbour was not feasible due to her large size and the decision was made to tug the vessel farther offshore to reduce the environmental impact, but this failed under rough sea conditions, the ship sank spilling over 1,300 tons of bunker fuel into the environment 

The Rescue Efforts

The enormity of this rescue can be attributed to the fact that in addition to the capture of 19,000 oiled African penguins, a further 19,500 un-oiled penguins were pre-emptively captured as part of the evacuation. The un-oiled birds were translocated to Cape Recife, near Port Elizabeth, 800km up the east coast to prevent them from becoming contaminated by the oil. The idea was that by the time the oil was cleaned up, the birds would have made their way back to Cape Town. Fortunately, many of the penguins did just that and returned to their natal colonies within a month of being released.  

This large-scale rescue effort was one of the largest bird rescue missions undertaken thanks to the thousands of volunteers and international oiled wildlife responders from around the world, including a management team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and International Bird Rescue (IBR) as well as specialists from wildlife response organisations, Zoos and AquariumsThe Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) initially responded, working with the local authorities to transfer the penguins to the mainland for stabilisation and washing at a warehouse facility that was modified to serve as a large-scale temporary rehabilitation facility. 

The rehabilitation effort took 12 weeks and, at its peak, required up to 50 professional wildlife responders and 500 volunteers per day working to decontaminate, feed, hydrate and swim the affected birds in order to prepare them for a return to the wild.  

There are many factors which led to the success of this historic response. This included the presence of SANCCOB as a Tier 2 (national) specialist seabird rescue organisation with a trained staff and volunteer pool. SANCCOB worked in tandem with the local government authority, CapeNature, a public institution with responsibility for biodiversity conservation on the Western Cape. SANCCOB and CapeNature had also incorporated lessons learned from a previous spill in South Africa - the Apollo Sea - in 1994. Most notably, this included the pre-positioning of transport boxes that could be rapidly deployed to allow penguins to be captured and transported safely with adequate ventilation.  

In addition to government and non-governmental support, the rescue effort attracted huge interest from the public and the local community was actively integrated into the response through a volunteer programme – essential given the large-scale logistics involved in feeding and caring for nearly 20,000 animals. Seeing the potential scale of the incident, SANCCOB also quickly reached out to request international assistance, which allowed local expertise to be augmented by international experts from around the world, led by IFAW and U.S.-based International Bird Rescue. 

Photo credit: SANCCOB

Present Situation

African penguins which are only found in South Africa and Namibia have suffered a steep population decline since the 1900’s; the species was up-listed from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2010, sliding further towards extinction. Prior to the Treasure oil spill in 2000, the African penguin population was approximately 46 500 breeding pairs, with Dassen Island carrying the largest concentration of penguins. Today, the numbers look very different and South Africa’s total population has declined to only 13 000 breeding pairsless than the number of penguins oiled during the Treasure oil spill. Maritime activities have increased substantially over the past 20 years, including cargo vessels, fishing vessels, passenger ships and bulk carriers; in addition the risk of offshore drilling for oil and practices such as offshore fuel bunkering all contribute to the risk of an environmental disaster. 

While the ideal scenario is to prevent any oil spills from occurring, the reality is that accidents happen. SANCCOB and its partners are committed to being prepared to respond to an oil spill affecting wildlife in South Africa. Along with other leading wildlife response organisations they have also been actively involved in the development of international planning and response standards, as well as efforts to establish an oil industry-funded international wildlife response systemThese efforts also require plan holders to ensure that effective wildlife response plans are in place and that local responders are able to regularly train and exercise together to ensure response readiness. Now, more than ever, this preparedness work is critical for South Africa, where one more oil spill has the potential to wipe out the remaining population of African penguins. 

Photo credit: SANCCOB


SANCCOB are a non-profit organisation based in South Africa whose primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill, injured, abandoned and oiled seabirds – especially endangered species like the African penguin. 

SANCCOB is an internationally recognised leader in oiled wildlife response, rehabilitation and chick-rearing; contributes to research which benefits seabirds; trains people to care for the birds and educates the public to develop behavioural patterns which benefit marine life and the environment.  

SANCCOB work collaboratively with Oil Spill Response Limited in South Africa and are one of the project partners in the OSRL-funded Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) Project.