Avian flu freezes coastal bird research in South Africa

Endangered African penguins are among several species hit by influenza, prompting an unprecedented research ban to contain the virus.

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Cape cormorants feeding on sardines

Cape cormorants and other seabirds in South Africa are off-limits to scientists, as part of an effort to limit avian flu.Credit: Chris & Monique Fallows/NPL

Scientists have been banned from handling seabirds in South African coastal colonies, as authorities race to quell an avian-flu outbreak that is threatening endangered species.

On 23 March, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs announced that it would be halting research activities for fear of unintentionally spreading the infection to other bird colonies. Researchers say that the move is unprecedented, but they see no other way to protect birds. The moratorium will remain in place until 1 June, with a re-evaluation scheduled for mid-May.

“On balance, it’s a reasonable measure to take, given the scale of the problem,” says Peter Ryan, director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in Cape Town. “We don’t want to exacerbate it — our birds have enough of a problem as it is.”

In February, veterinarians detected H5N8 avian influenza virus in African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) at Boulders Beach in the Western Cape. The African penguin is classified as endangered, and is one of a number of wild bird species affected. Others afflicted include terns, Cape cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). Although the virus is highly pathogenic to chickens and other poultry, its impact on wild seabirds is not yet well understood, according to a statement released at the time by the national-parks authority.

Early action

Avian-influenza outbreaks aren’t unheard of in South Africa, and wildlife officials are still determining the scale of the current epidemic. Fewer than 100 birds have tested positive for the virus so far, says Lauren Waller, an avian specialist with the government-supported conservation organization CapeNature in Cape Town. Of the birds affected, the swift tern (Thalasseus bergii) has been hit hardest. Just 14 African penguins from 9 sites have tested positive, she adds.

Avian flu circulates in seabirds and wildlife officials cannot keep outbreaks from emerging, says Andrew de Blocq, a Cape Town-based coastal-seabird conservation officer with Birdlife South Africa. “What you can do, as they’ve done, is take steps to prevent it moving around artificially.”

It is not yet clear how the ban will affect research, because breeding seasons — when scientists tend to study the birds — vary between species. African penguins are about to enter their breeding season, which lasts from May to June, so those projects might be affected, he says. “The risk of transfer by research is small, but any risk is something to worry about.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-03951-6

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