Abandoned African penguin chicks in quarantine

On Tuesday, 2 November 2021, SANCCOB admitted 120 abandoned African penguin chicks from the Stony Point penguin colony in Betty’s Bay, in collaboration with CapeNature. CapeNature, the managing authority, carries out regular monitoring of chicks’ overall body condition, and chicks that present as being underweight and without parent birds in their nests are marked for removal. Without this important intervention, these chicks would die and as endangered species we proactively rescue abandoned young birds.

African penguins undergo an annual moult and during this time they cannot enter the ocean without their waterproof plumage, so chicks that haven’t fledged are not fed. This can lead to the chicks becoming emaciated, dehydrated and anaemic, and with an estimated 10,300 breeding pairs of African penguin left in the wild in South Africa, their survival is critical for the species.

Despite abandoned chicks being an annual occurrence, this year is more complicated as we navigate a devastating disease outbreak affecting seabirds in the wild. Thanks to regular testing, SANCCOB detected the first wild birds carrying the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza in South Africa in May 2021. After initially affecting a variety of species in relatively small numbers, a sudden increase in cases, especially in endangered Cape cormorants, affecting over 15,000 individuals and rising on the Western Cape coast of South Africa.

Avian Influenza is a highly contagious viral disease, and all measures must be taken to minimise the risk of spread to healthy birds. As part of SANCCOB’s planning and preparedness, we called upon Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) to use their oil spill response base in Durbanville as a quarantine facility for African penguin chicks as a temporary measure. Due to the pathogenicity of the virus, we must assume that all individual birds may be carriers; therefore best practice is to quarantine these birds whilst samples are sent for laboratory testing. Once testing has been conducted, negative individuals will be transferred to SANCCOB’s facility for hand-rearing.

The value in preparedness cannot be over-emphasised. Preparedness on the part of OSRL in the oil spill industry is a daily practice and in this event, OSRL and SANCCOB’s preparedness in anticipation of high volumes of chicks made it possible to get the quarantine facility ready for admissions to temporarily house the abandoned birds. SANCCOB is working closely with the OSRL team and thankful for their ongoing support to seabird conservation.

You can support SANCCOB’s African penguin conservation work here.