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African penguins move into igloo development

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African officials have built a housing development of fiberglass igloos for a colony of endangered penguins, hoping to replicate natural nesting grounds damaged by environmental degradation.

The penguin housing colony on Dyer Island near Cape Town is seen as last ditch effort to save the colony, which has dwindled to just 5,000 animals from 25,000 in the 1970s, officials said on Tuesday.

"We're trying to copy the natural system. Academics and scientists have given us input and we're monitoring success on an ongoing basis," said Lauren Waller, nature conservator for CapeNature, the provincial environmental preservation body.

Dyer Island, a bleak islet popular with shark spotting tours, was once rich in nutrient-rich guano -- bird faeces -- but has seen the resource stripped by commercial enterprises who sell it as fertilizer.

That proved bad news for the African penguins -- formerly known as Jackass penguins -- which rely on guano to nest their eggs, hide from predators and provide a rare spot of shade on an island almost devoid of trees and bushes.

Conservationists now plan to construct up to 2,000 artificial burrows on the island, hoping the fiberglass igloos will persuade more penguins to procreate.

Provincial conservation body Cape Nature has already built 180 igloos and is seeking funding to finance the rest of the construction work, which involves smashing through hard rock surface and installing drainage systems.

Officials say the penguins are already poking around the development and some have already helped themselves to a home.

Engineers of the housing program expect African penguins under similar duress in neighboring communities may choose to migrate to the Dyer Island igloos if conditions prove favorable.

"The penguins are coming in to investigate and occupy the nests. Some yesterday did seem to fight over them but not all are occupied at the moment," said Waller.

African penguins exist in parts of South Africa and Namibia and are considered a "vulnerable" species, Waller said.

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