Paul Kelway, Wildlife Preparedness and Response Manager at Oil Spill Response, interviews Nicky Stander from SANCCOB in the sixth episode of our interview series with wildlife response organisations participating in the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System Project.
The intention is now to transition the project to a global oiled wildlife response service, with a guaranteed four-person wildlife assessment team available as a supplementary service through OSRL. We are posting monthly conversations with each of the network partners to raise awareness of the amazing organizations that have been collaborating on this.
You can watch the interview, listen to it on Soundcloud or read the transcript below.
Paul: So just to kick things off, I wanted to really just start with asking if you could briefly introduce SANCCOB. So as an organization, what's your mission and where and how do you carry out your work?
Nicky: Thanks Paul. SANCCOB is quite an old organization. We were established in 1968 so we've been around for some time and we're a marine conservation organization with a special focus on endangered seabirds, including the African penguin. Sadly, species of seabirds all over the world are declining and so our job is becoming a lot harder and our work is primarily in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape of South Africa. And we've recently been moving into Namibia trying to assist them with some preparedness work as well.
Paul: Is there a story from all those years of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife that particularly stands out as one that really illustrates the value of the work that SANCCOB does?
Nicky: There are many stories that I could think of that SANCCOB was involved in over the last 50 plus years and in terms of oiled wildlife response. You know, we've responded to every spill along the South African coastline affecting seabirds since our establishment in 1968. And of course, the one of the most remembered and celebrated responses was the Treasure Oil spill in 2000, more than 20 years ago. It remains the largest animal rescue in history, so you know huge recognition for not only for SANCCOB, but for other organizations that assisted and all of the volunteers. Thousands of people that have helped us. And of course, you know with that comes an expectation, and so we are remembered specifically for that for that event.
Paul: Yeah, that certainly a real milestone or sort of significant incident in, as you say, in terms of the numbers and the role that SANCCOB played, and obviously continues to play with the African penguin and other species in South Africa. Looking to more recent times, are there other similar events that you've had to deal with, or other challenges that you're relating to in terms of seabird emergencies in South Africa?
Nicky: SANCCOB has had to adapt over the years. You know, 20 years ago oil spills were much more frequent and that was the core function of our organization. But these days we have way more challenges with climate change issues and disease. So if I just look back to last year in 2021, we dealt with three major responses and they were all dealt with in the same manner as how you would with an oil spill response. And we started off the year with a very serious Cape Cormorant response, where the chicks were abandoned by their parents. There were more than 2,000 chicks that were rescued from Robben Island and brought to our facility and that response lasted for six months. And then off the back of that, we went straight into an avian influenza outbreak. A very serious disease that causes huge mortality, again affecting the same species of the Cape Cormorant and endangered species again. Unfortunately, with more than 24,000 individuals were found dead. So, very sad. And then of course an oil spill happened in the Eastern Cape in November just to keep us on our toes and that was caused by the ship-to-ship bunkering operations in Algoa Bay and so plenty going on. But so we have to still be prepared for oil spills. But what it has taught us is that we respond to these incidents in the same way as we respond to oil spills. You know, you still need to be prepared, you need capacity, and you need equipment. And the way that you respond to them would be linked to your contingency plans. So, if nothing else it’s been good practice.
Paul: Yeah, it's amazing work and as you say it's not so much about the specific type of emergency, but the fact that there's a variety of these challenges that occur. And it's a similar skillset that SANCCOB holds that allows that effective response, and I know a number of other GOWRS partners I've spoken to deal with similar challenges where there's more and more of these non-oil events that you're called upon to assist with. So obviously the connection in terms of the global network and the role that SANCCOB plays in and amongst that international network of organizations is the involvement in the GOWRS project over the years. And as you know, we're in the process of making that transition from GOWRS being funded as a project to being a live service, and so two questions that are connected to that: one is if you think about just the benefit it will have for wildlife response preparedness in general, what would you say is some of the significant benefits or outcomes of GOWRS really becoming an actual service this year?
Nicky: I think it's undoubtedly the collaboration between these ten-partner organizations. There's so much strength and knowledge and skill between the 10 organizations for different reasons. It’s so amazing that it's now coming into fruition, and there's been a lot of work as you know, Paul, over the years before my time even or before I was involved in GOWRS. So understanding that even though each organization is unique in their own way, we will have the same goal and we all have the same mindset of making the world a better place in terms of being more prepared so that wildlife do not have to suffer and that they have a good opportunity for successful rehabilitation. That's what we have in common, and that collaboration is extremely powerful, and I think in the future when we are out there in the field we will be able to show the Members the value of that collaboration, what each person brings to the table and what we can deliver in the field.
Paul: It's a really good point and just a variety of organizations and skillsets and the ability to actually mix and match and tailor the team for the specific needs of a particular location or species impact, etc. So that's obviously in relation to preparedness in general. I think that's a really good point. For SANCCOB as a organization, you already talked about all the different sort of ways that you're asked to respond, and some of those are funded, some of them are not. What would this mean for SANCCOB as an organization? What would it mean with the service being live? And how would that change SANCCOB for the better?
Nicky: As an NGO we are constantly challenged with funding. We are constantly challenged with, you know, lack of resources and capacity, you know, there's always sort of 10 hats that each of us has to wear. And so I do think that the funded service will bring an opportunity for us to grow our levels of response. It would be amazing for us to grow our team so that we can deliver much more training, especially to African partners. You know we're sitting at the bottom of Southern Africa and there's a huge expectation. We are mandated by the South African government to respond to oil spills. But we have responded to Namibia and we've responded in the Southern Ocean to Tristan de Cunha as well. So when you look at the world, you know there's really just these pockets of expertise that are sitting there and which is now the formation of GOWRS. And so for SANCCOB, I would love to see some opportunities for us to grow that level of preparedness for Africa specifically and make sure that we are the go-to organization for preparedness for skill and expertise when it comes to Members needing that service.
Paul: It's a really good point and hopefully one that really supports SANCCOB in terms of having that connectivity and being able to be recognized and also have the ability to provide that service and expertise. The other part of that is moving that preparedness piece forward, not just for Africa, but the world in general. Another question on that would be what do you see as the next priorities in terms of improving preparedness in general? If we look at different countries around the world and where we are with wildlife response preparedness what are the things you think about which would really be the next priorities for our Members or other stakeholders to think about?
Nicky: I mean, we are aware that you know shipping and vessels, vessel traffic has increased over the years. We know that oil and gas exploration has increased and will continue to increase. The risks are there and we are all aware of that and obviously preparedness is key, but I think it would be very helpful to do an audit, a global audit to look at preparedness per country and to identify with those areas that really need a tier-one, at least and assist those countries or those regions with developing a baseline of preparedness. You know some countries are hugely advanced in where they are today and that's amazing, but there are many parts of the world that have nothing so if an oil spill happens sometimes it doesn't even get reported, and you can imagine that the wildlife component in the environmental aspects are last on the list, and so those are the elements that worry me and in Africa, specifically West Africa, there's huge opportunity for us to really make a difference.
Paul: I think what you're saying as well is, one of the other reasons really behind GOWRS, which is that you do have these countries where expertise has developed over the years. And this idea of pooling that experience and those organizations together, not just to respond to incidents in other parts of the world, but hopefully to also be a force multiplier for making those further developments in terms of what needs to be considered ahead of time. So, another important element I think of the GOWRS initiative. Anything else that you'd like to share just about SANCCOB and your work before we wrap up with one last question?
Nicky: I've been with SANCCOB for 12 years and in that time it's a matter of adapting to what happens over time and what happens in the space of the marine environment. Species that are endangered, it's a huge concern, obviously. Whether it's penguins or turtles and there's an added pressure. So when oil impacts any species, you have a small window of opportunity to rescue and bring it into a rehabilitation centre. And then it's got a fairly good chance of survival and release. What's important to note with the African penguin is that independent research has shown that from the Treasure Oil Spill, for example, oiling has actually impacted the reproductive system, so there's a huge misconception that animals can be oiled and cleaned and released, and sometimes that is possible, but we obviously want to prevent that because it does have long-lasting effects and we're currently looking at some more research now of some recent oiling incidents where we're looking at survival and breeding success of African penguins because ultimately, if they're not breeding, they're not contributing to the population, and that's never a good thing for an endangered species. So yes, preparedness for us is key. Trying to prevent it from happening would be number one and working with industry and working with the government to help as much as we can and advise on these issues.
Paul: Well, thank you. That's a really good point and certainly just a huge thanks for all the work that you do and that SANCCOB does and I certainly look forward to continuing that collaboration with SANCCOB part of the GOWRS project and also locally in South Africa. So thank you for that, Nicky. Looking ahead to the next episode of this, we're going to be speaking with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research from the East Coast of the US, from Delaware. So just wanted to finish off here. If you'd like to introduce them, say something about Tri-state that you know and admire as another of the GOWRS partners?
Nicky: Absolutely, Lisa Smith is the Executive Director of Tri-State and she's on the GOWRS Network and what a fantastic person she is. She has an extremely positive outlook and a can-do attitude and she really is a pleasure to work with. I can just imagine her in a spill situation or in a high-stress situation, cracking jokes and making light of it. And that's why it requires, you know, we don't want these hot heads in these situations. We need people to keep calm and see the funny side of things. So Lisa, as a person and as a leader of Tri-State is pretty amazing. Tri-State as an organization is similar to SANCCOB. It's been around for more than 40 years, so it’s well established. And what's amazing about them is that they admit more than 3,000 species or animals a year, which is huge. It's incredibly energy demanding and labour-intensive work looking after birds believe it or not, well, you would know Paul having responded to the Treasure as well. I mean a huge undertaking to be accepting birds all year round. Whether it's a disease response or injury or whatever, it could be anything. And then on top of that, they also offer an oiled wildlife service as well. So it's pretty amazing what they can achieve. And that's to be admired, absolutely.
Paul: Thank you. Very well said, great introduction and as you say, it's great to have Lisa in that wider network, representing Tri-State. And really look forward to catching up with her on the next interview, but for now, thank you for chatting with me today and wishing you all the best, hopefully for some quiet months ahead and look forward to continuing to work on the transition of GOWRS into a service. Thanks so much.
Nicky: Thank you, Paul.