A Penguin runs out of the ocean after swimming with other penguins at Boulders beach a popular tourist destination in Simon's Town, South Africa. (Schalk Van Zuydam/AP)

They’re cute, they’re knee-high, they bray like donkeys and they’re a tourist attraction near Cape Town, South Africa. But African penguins — the continent’s only species of the flightless bird — are at risk of extinction.

As shoals of anchovies and sardines have migrated south into cooler waters, the population of African penguins that feeds on them has plummeted — by 90 percent since 2004 along South Africa’s west coast, once the stronghold of the species.

This decline led to a ban on commercial fishing in four key areas seven years ago to see whether that could help save the penguins. But scientists are still debating whether fishing is threatening the species.

If the situation does not change, the black-and-white seabirds may soon disappear, experts say.

In the 1930s, South Africa’s largest colony — one of many — had a million African penguins. Now, only 100,000 of the birds remain in all of South Africa and neighboring Namibia, the only places where the species exists.

Penguins are a tourist attraction in South Africa, but the continent’s only species of the flightless bird is at risk of extinction. (Schalk Van Zuydam/AP)

Anchovies and sardines constitute, in volume, the biggest component of South Africa’s fishing industry. In revenue, it’s the second-biggest. They are also the penguin’s primary food source.

Both fisheries scientists and bird specialists agree that the decline of the penguin began around 2004 with a shift in anchovies and sardines away from the colonies. Scientists are unsure why the fish have moved; possible causes include climate change, overfishing and natural fluctuations.

Penguins must now swim farther to catch fish, leaving adults weakened. Many have died or abandoned their chicks, with hundreds winding up in the crowded outdoor pens of a rehabilitation center run by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, which releases rehabilitated penguins into the wild every week.

Recently, a team led by Janet Coetzee, a government fisheries scientist, was in a small boat towing a hefty oblong device through one of the banned fishing areas. Surveys using such devices, which determine how many fish are around, have found that there were plenty of anchovies for penguins during certain months.

Coetzee says fishing quotas allow only approximately 10 percent of the sardine and anchovy population to be taken, leaving plenty of fish for penguins. She and other fisheries experts blame predators such as fur seals and sharks, nest flooding, heat stress or disturbances from large fishing vessels for exacerbating the penguin decline — not fishing itself.

Penguin biologists say it’s too early to tell. “These sorts of issues must be teased out and the assumptions clearly understood,” said Rob Crawford, whose penguin research team wants to keep the fishing grounds closed for several more years.

Meanwhile, fisheries scientists are calling for an end to the ban.

When fishing areas are closed, vessels must take more costly circuitous routes and they suffer losses in catch, said Mike Copeland, strategic project manager for Lucky Star, a fishing company. An economic analysis of the impact of closures is underway.

“There’s a lot at stake,” said Ross Wanless of BirdLife South Africa, a group that supports conservation efforts. “We need to act now.”

— Associated Press