On 13 February this year (2019) it became official: Namibia’s African penguins on Halifax Island off Lüderitz are dying from the dreaded influenza A virus subtype H5N8. Up to February 18th a total of 345 birds had been found dead on the island. The carcasses were burned. Experts assume that up to 500 penguins had perished by that time because many died in the Atlantic and were swept away by the ocean current.
The IUCN Red List classifies the flightless birds as endangered. Penguins of the Halifax colony probably started dying around the middle of December last year (2018). In early January experts and researchers discovered dead penguins that had been washed onto the beach opposite Halifax Island. Due to inclement weather conditions researcher Dr Jessica Kemper was only able to visit Halifax on 16 January. The island was a horrific sight. Dead adult penguins were lying everywhere. The following day Dr Kemper returned with three employees of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and 184 penguin carcasses were collected and burned.
Several sick birds were taken ashore and treated but nevertheless died shortly afterwards. The avian influenza A(H5N8) virus was seen as the obvious reason because penguins that were still alive showed the characteristic symptoms. A year earlier the highly contagious disease had been identified in South Africa.
According to Dr Katrin Ludynia, the manager of the research department of SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) in Cape Town in South Africa, nearly 100 penguins and more than 5000 Swift Terns had died from avian influenza A(H5N8) in the Western Cape Province. During the ten years from 2005 until 2015 Dr Ludynia and Dr Kemper used data loggers to study the foraging behaviour of breeding African Penguins from Halifax Island.
With samples from Halifax, submitted in January, it was unofficially confirmed that the A(H5N8) virus was the reason for penguins dying there, but the responsible veterinary laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry insisted on taking its own samples for testing them officially. Thus the outbreak of the avian influenza A(H5N8) virus on Halifax Island was announced by the veterinary office and the Ministry of Fisheries only on 13 February. It is unknown whether the two ministries in charge have taken any formal action to prevent this dangerous disease from spreading. Burning of penguin carcasses continues on Halifax Island, and a depression where water accumulates and forms a potential hotbed for the virus was treated with salt and filled with sand.
According to Dr Kemper the African Penguin population on Halifax started to recover in recent years, while the populations along Namibia’s coastline continue to decline slightly. The total number of African Penguins in Namibia is estimated to be around 29000, of which 7000 live on Halifax Island. Some 1400 pairs used to breed there.
In South Africa the avian influenza A(H5N8) virus was detected on ostrich and chicken farms in the Western Cape in the second half of December 2017, and eventually in some seabirds as well. The first infected terns were found in early 2018. It took a long time, however, before the local state laboratory and the environmental agency responded, officially confirmed the outbreak of the disease and took measures to stop it from spreading. In March last year scientists were in fact banned from visiting the affected islands or bird colonies where avian influenza had erupted or was suspected to be present. Some of the strict rules for researchers have since been relaxed.
It is thought that the virus was introduced to South Africa by migratory birds from Eurasia via north and east Africa. Various species of wild birds were affected after the disease broke out on poultry and ostrich farms. It is still unclear how the bird flu reached Halifax Island in Namibia.
Among the victims found so far on Halifax Island is a ringed African Penguin, A10883. This bird was ringed in April 2009 by Dr Kemper, a penguin researcher. She and Dr Ludynia found it in April 2009 on Halifax Island covered in oil. The penguin was sent to SANCCOB in South Africa together with another 128 oil-fouled African Penguins, where it was cleaned and nursed back to health. A10883 and others were released back into the sea from Robben Island near Cape Town on June 2nd that year. In August 2010 it was again discovered on Halifax Island. The penguin has since been spotted repeatedly on the island with a partner. Now A10883, along with several hundred others of the species, has fallen victim to bird flu.
According to latest reports dated 5 March 2019 the virus has now reached Ichaboe Island, 43km north of Halifax. So far, 27 penguins died there. Fears arise that the H5N8 virus might spread to the neighbouring breeding colonies of the endangered Cape Cormorant and the critically endangered Cape Gannet.
Author: Dirk Heinrich