On Sunday, 8 January 2023, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) successfully released 51 African penguins at the Stony Point colony in Betty’s Bay, as well as five rehabilitated Kelp gulls and a Black-headed heron. SANCCOB’s seabird hospital in Cape Town has been under quarantine since the end of November 2022 following an outbreak of Avian Influenza. The release of the seabirds is an incredible achievement and serves as a testament to the diligent efforts of all SANCCOB staff and volunteers to adhere to the strict biosecurity measures which prevented the spread of the highly pathogenic Avian Influenza disease.
It has been a challenging time at SANCCOB – having just under 500 seabirds in care – monitoring individual birds daily for any Avian Influenza symptoms that may have developed. Strict biosecurity measures were implemented to reduce the spread of the disease as much as possible. Being under quarantine has meant that SANCCOB could not release birds and were only permitted to admit newly acquired patients to the seabird hospital if they were in urgent need of intensive care. A separate off-site facility enabled SANCCOB to care for most of the new seabirds admitted from the wild. “Limited human capacity and the need for extra equipment and consumables posed major challenges, especially during the December holiday period. A heartfelt thank you to the dedicated interns and volunteers who assisted us during the festive period,” says Monica Stassen, SANCCOB’s Preparedness and Response Manager.
Nicky Stander, Head of Conservation at SANCCOB, shares, “We are happy to report that our increased biosecurity protocols allowed us to isolate some areas of our facility that were not affected by the disease. These areas have been kept separate from the affected birds since the outbreak was detected with strict biosecurity measures in place, this includes their own pool, equipment, and personnel. The birds in these areas were retested and the results are negative for Avian Influenza. The birds were also assessed to determine if they met all the other “pre-release” criteria.” Based on the negative test results and SANCCOB’s strict biosecurity protocol, the Department of Agriculture awarded SANCCOB a special permit to release birds from the pens that tested negative for Avian Influenza.
According to Dr David Roberts, SANCCOB’s Clinical Veterinarian, “Whilst the news is positive, SANCCOB Cape Town remains under state-mandated quarantine, and strict biosecurity measures are still being implemented. We still have over 350 birds in care, some of which are still affected by Avian Influenza. Although, the infected birds are mostly asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, it is still a lot of work to feed and care for so many penguins that are otherwise ready for release. We are concerned that their extended stay in captivity will lead to secondary health complications.”
Before SANCCOB can release any birds, they must be kept in an isolated area where all the birds are free from symptoms and test negative for Avian Influenza. The organisation will continue to work closely with the Department of Agriculture on a testing and release strategy that minimises risk to seabirds in the wild. Stander says, “We are very grateful to every person and entity who has contributed to this first set of successful releases; we could not have achieved this without the financial and on-site support received, and the hard work of all individuals who have played a role. It is still a long road to walk before all the birds are free from Avian Influenza and quarantine can be lifted but we are confident that most of the birds in our care will soon be swimming free once more.”