Scientists are worried about the effects of this epidemic which has already killed around thirty Cape penguins settled in a colony on a beach at the southern tip of Africa.
The disease, officially known as bird flu, is incurable and has already killed more than 20,000 Cape cormorants since last year.
Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, located in Simon’s Town on a spectacular coastline about 20 miles from Cape Town, is home to some 3,000 African penguins out of approximately 14,000 remaining breeding pairs on the planet. The penguin is a species found exclusively in southern African waters.
African penguins are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
In the span of 30 years, the number of this bird in South African waters has collapsed by 73%, from around 42,500 breeding pairs in 1991 to 10,400 in 2021. If this trend continues, the only penguin endemic to the continent could disappear in the wild within 15 years. The situation is mainly due to food scarcity due to overfishing and changes in air and ocean temperatures, which affect the availability of sardines.
“They face other stresses, ranging from lack of food to habitat destruction and ocean ecosystem collapse…and in those cases we fear disease could push them to death end,” Dr David Roberts, a clinical veterinarian at the Southern African Coastal Bird Conservation Foundation, told AFP (Agence France Press).
Many threats currently weigh on this African penguin, which lives between South Africa and Namibia. Oil spills, ocean pollution, global warming, food shortages due to overfishing, or egg predation. Unfortunately for this endangered bird, disease also adds to the list.
The disease is usually spread between birds through feces. The virus was detected in the country in May last year and has affected various seabirds, according to SANParks, the authority responsible for South Africa’s national parks, and the South African Coastal Bird Conservation Foundation.
For their part, the South African authorities have expressed their concern about the dangerousness of its strain: this flu would be similar to that which struck seabirds last year.
On the recommendation of wildlife officers, Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s environment minister, is considering banning purse seine fishing in a buffer zone of around 20km around the country’s six main island settlements, namely Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St. Croix Island and Bird Island. These are home to 88% of the country’s penguin population.
However, in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease, tests are carried out based on the symptoms the birds are showing. Penguins affected by the disease are removed from the colony.
Roberts said rangers were looking for sick birds.
“Because it’s an incurable disease, we don’t welcome them and we don’t give them medication, we prefer to euthanize them,” he said.
Azwianewi Makhado, a seabird specialist with the Department of Fisheries, Forestry, and Environment, said the department has a bird safety policy for all personnel handling penguins at colonies.
“The clothes you wear when you enter the settlement should be removed upon leaving and should not be worn again,” Makhado said.