New England Aquarium joins international partnership to protect endangered African penguins

Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program aims to protect species in need

African penguin chick “Bray,” who hatched at the New England Aquarium in March 2023. CREDIT: Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

BOSTON, MASS. (Oct. 12, 2023) – The New England Aquarium is joining an international effort to protect and restore wild African penguin populations, as the endangered species faces extinction.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) founded the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program in 2015 to focus the expertise, resources, and audience of its member institutions toward efforts to protect and recover species in need. The New England Aquarium, which is accredited by the AZA, recently signed on as a SAFE African Penguin program partner. The Aquarium has a unique colony of 39 African penguins, with more than half of the population exceeding the average lifespan of African penguins in their natural environment.

“The top priority for our colony of African penguins is the highest level of animal care, welfare, enrichment, and training on a daily basis, in addition to a thoughtful breeding program. With the current wild populations of African penguins rapidly declining, we are committed to conservation efforts for these incredible birds and feel honored to join the SAFE program,” said Kristen McMahon, the Aquarium’s Curator of Pinnipeds and Penguins.

African penguins are experiencing an alarming and continuing decline in their native environment, with some scientists predicting that they could be functionally extinct in southwestern South Africa by 2035. As part of the SAFE program, more than 30 AZA facilities have joined forces to develop various projects, from improving disaster response protocols for oil spills to constructing artificial nests to address population declines caused by overfishing, habitat degradation, and oil spills. AZA organizations will be drawing attention to the species’ plight on African Penguin Awareness Day coming up October 14.

The New England Aquarium plans to support the SAFE program by promoting educational opportunities for guests using its engaging penguin habitat, continuing breeding plans to promote the responsible and sustainable population management of the species, and participating in field conservation work including with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Cape Town and Gqeberha, Africa. SANCCOB provides high-quality rehabilitation and veterinary services to African penguins and other seabirds in need with a strong focus on conservation education programs and research projects.

“Over the last 20 years, New England Aquarium has played a significant role in the African penguin Species Survival Plan® (SSP). Thanks to their expertise and cooperation, they have contributed greatly to the extremely successful genetic management of this species in AZA zoos and aquariums. Their dedication to African penguin conservation is taking an exciting new direction by becoming a SAFE African Penguin Program Partner, and I’m truly thrilled to have the Aquarium as a new SAFE partner,” said SAFE African Penguin Secretary Gayle Sirpenski, Animal Management Specialist at Mystic Aquarium.

Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) combines the power of engaging 183 million annual AZA-accredited aquarium and zoo visitors with the expertise of these facilities and their conservation partners to save species. SAFE also provides a unique platform for AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos to increase the impact of their field conservation efforts and conservation contributions. The New England Aquarium also participates in the SAFE Shark and Ray, SAFE American Turtle, and SAFE Sea Turtle programs.

For more information about the AZA SAFE African Penguin program, visit


MEDIA CONTACT: Pam Bechtold Snyder,; 617-686-5068