PREPAREDNESS & RESPONSE
Preparedness can be defined “as a set of measures undertaken by governments, organisations, communities, and/or individuals to better respond and cope with the immediate aftermath of a disaster, whether it be man-made or caused by natural hazards”.
Wildlife preparedness operates under the same principal except the focus is on assisting animals that have been impacted by a disaster either man-made or due to natural causes. Examples of disasters that affect wildlife include disease outbreaks, mass abandonments and oil spills.
There are many threats facing seabirds which include food shortage, habitat destruction, extreme weather events, predation, marine pollution, human disturbance, and disease outbreaks. Historical disasters have had a negative impact on seabird populations. As seabird numbers continue to dwindle, a concerning picture is emerging that without effective mitigation measures many of these species could soon become extinct.
SANCCOB recognises that reactive response is insufficient and that proactively planning, and preparation is required to mitigate the effects and minimise the impact. SANCCOB collaborates with government, industry, NGOs, and other organisations to adequately plan tactics for affected seabirds.
SANCCOB’s focus areas for Preparedness and Response include but are not limited to:
- Oil spills
- Disease outbreaks
- Mass abandonments
OILED WILDLIFE PREPAREDNESS & EMERGENCY RESPONSE
South Africa is a maritime nation with a coastline of over 3 900km (including the coastline around the Prince Edwards Islands). In South Africa, oil spills are a major concern given that South Africa is along a major shipping route with an estimated 30 000 vessels that pass the South African coastline annually. Unfortunately, South Africa has experienced several devastating oil spills and is considered a global hotspot for oil pollution; examples include the Apollo in 1994 and the Treasure in 2000, both of which affected thousands of African penguins and other seabirds. South Africa permits offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction, posing a risk of oil pollution or well blow-outs.
South Africa hosts a high biodiversity of marine species including sea and coastal birds, many of which are of high conservation value. Seabirds are vulnerable to oil pollution, particularly African penguins as they cannot fly. nearby an area where birds are concentrated. Contingency planning before an oil spill occurs is key to ensuring an appropriate and timeous response strategy is selected and implemented. Emphasis should not be placed on quantity of oil spilled, but rather the location; areas that are ecologically and biologically sensitive can potentially result in a large-scale clean-up effort and wildlife response. Even small amounts of oil can have detrimental effects on seabirds both in the short term and in the long term.
Why is SANCCOB involved?
- SANCCOB is legally mandated to respond to oil affected seabird according to legislation in South Africa.
- SANCCOB aims to protect species of conservation value including those that are endemic to the region or listed on the IUCN Red Data List.
- SANCCOB has a moral obligation to humanely minimise wildlife suffering.
SANCCOB has responded to every major oil spill affecting seabirds along the Southern African coastline since its establishment in 1968, including Tier 3 incidents in Namibia and Tristan da Cunha in the Southern Ocean. Due to its long-standing expertise in this field, SANCCOB is the primary organisation listed in South Africa’s National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) to respond to seabirds affected, or at risk of oil pollution. In terms of global preparedness, SANCCOB is a member of the Global Oiled Wildlife Response Systems (GOWRS), consisting of ten leading international oiled wildlife organisations available to respond to Tier 3 incidents 24/7/365.
More information on GOWRS can be found here.
SANCCOB maintains an oiled wildlife response team comprised of trained and experienced emergency managers, professional wildlife rehabilitators, biologists, and veterinarians. The response team are fully trained in the Incident Management System (IMS), are HAZWOPER certified and can be deployed 24/7/365 in the event of an oil pollution incident affecting sea- and coastal birds. The team also provides on-the-job training to wildlife contractors, government officials and volunteers.
SANCCOB’s historical involvement in oil spill response makes it uniquely placed to develop oiled wildlife contingency plans. SANCCOB forms partnerships with government authorities, environmental NGOs and industries to ensure that these plans are aligned with mainstream oil spill response efforts.
SANCCOB is uniquely positioned to offer consultancy services including:
- Oiled wildlife preparedness contingency plans
- Preparedness capabilities and technical planning
- Oiled wildlife response retainer
- Marine wildlife response equipment identification and procurement
- First Responder theoretical and practical training
SANCCOB’s Preparedness & Response Manager, Monica Stassen can be contacted at Monica@sanccob.co.za for more information.
GLOBAL OILED WILDLIFE RESPONSE SYSTEM (GOWRS)
SANCCOB is a member of the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS). To address increased recognition of oiled wildlife as a core component of tiered preparedness for oil spills, the GOWRS was initiated in 2015 to develop a Tier 3 (international) system for oiled wildlife response and we are the only South African entity. This project brought together ten of the world’s leading oiled wildlife preparedness and response organisations in order to develop key readiness guidance documents to ensure professional, effective preparedness and response.
The organisations currently involved in the GOWRS network include the following:
Aiuká (Brazil); Focus Wildlife International (US/Canada); International Bird Rescue (USA); Oiled Wildlife Care Network, UC Davis (USA); PRO Bird (Germany); RSPCA (UK); SANCCOB (South Africa); Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc. (USA); Wildbase, Massey University (NZ); and Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend (Belgium).
The GOWRS Project is now operational and as of 2022, this wildlife response has become part of Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) Service Level Agreement (SLA). GOWRS is a ready‐to‐deploy Assessment Team of four wildlife response experts, drawn from 10 leading international wildlife response organisations, which will be available 24/7/365 to deploy for a four‐day in‐country incident assessment.
In many instances, a disease outbreak is unavoidable however contingency planning and intervention may reduce the impact of the outbreak. Knowing the risks to seabird populations and necessary management actions that could mitigate the effects of the disease is critical to contingency planning. SANCCOB has been at the forefront of several seabird-related disease outbreaks, including avian pox, cholera, avian malaria, and avian influenza. Mortality has been high in some species and severely compromised seabirds with a poor prognosis often require euthanasia. SANCCOB aids conservation authorities beyond our disease surveillance programme; developing biosecurity protocols, veterinary expertise for diagnosis and care, responding to sick birds, human health and safety and carcass disposal. SANCCOB has recently collaborated with management authorities, research institutes and other NGOs to develop a national contingency plan for disease management in seabird species.
Case Study – Avian Influenza
South Africa’s worst recorded seabird disease outbreak occurred in 2018. Fourteen different species of seabirds were infected by the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain of Avian Influenza (bird flu).
In December 2017, SANCCOB Table View started to admit Swift terns affected by an unusual disease which caused weakness and neurological symptoms, shortly followed by similar cases in the Eastern Cape. We were unable to save the affected birds and, on further testing, diagnosed H5N8 Avian Influenza. The first cases identified in African penguins were in January 2018.
SANCCOB’s long-standing history of disease research and surveillance was crucial in response to the Avian Influenza outbreak in the wild. We were able to assist the State Veterinary Service, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Environment, the conservation authorities, and other stakeholders during the outbreak. We are also collaborating with the University of Pretoria on further research focused on Avian Influenza in African penguins.
By the end of the outbreak, the deaths of approximately 100 African penguin and 5,000 Swift terns were officially attributed to the disease. The true number of mortalities would have been much higher. The disease may have caused the deaths of 1,500 Cape gannets, and 100 Cape cormorants which were also found dead during the outbreak. Fortunately, large numbers of penguins did not die within the colonies in South Africa. The last case of Avian Influenza during this outbreak was detected in a seabird in South Africa in May 2018.
In 2019 African penguins in Namibia were affected by the same strain of Avian Influenza which had a worse effect on the colonies there, resulting in approximately 500 African penguin mortalities.
In May 2021, another outbreak of Avian Influenza was detected through SANCCOB’s disease surveillance project. The outbreak started to affect SANCCOB’s rehabilitation work during May when a Hartlaub’s gull tested positive on post-mortem. SANCCOB had to euthanise and test all suspicious cases presenting with neurological signs, including gull species that appear to have botulism and various biosecurity measures were introduced. SANCCOB Cape Town was not permitted to release any birds for 28 days after the last case was diagnosed in our rehabilitation centre as per the State Veterinary restrictions.
The outbreak took a turn for the worse in September 2021 when it started to affect endangered Cape cormorants. Over 24,000 Cape cormorants were reported to have died from avian influenza in less than two months. The sites that were affected the most are colonies at Dyer Island and Velddrif on the West Coast of South Africa. We have also diagnosed cases in the other endangered seabirds; Cape gannets, Bank cormorants and African penguins but there was not a severe outbreak in any of these species.
SANCCOB assisted the Western Cape Disaster Management to coordinate the response to this severe mortality event. This has included advising municipalities and conservation authorities on how to cope with large numbers of dead and affected birds, how to euthanise the sick birds humanely and to dispose of the carcasses safely.
Climate change, lack of food, unpredictable weather patterns, habitat destruction are all causes that result in adult seabirds abandoning their chicks. In recent years, there has been an increase in the frequency of seabird egg and chick abandonment incidents. Conservation authorities assess the appropriate time to intervene and transfer eggs and chicks to SANCCOB to be artificially hand reared.
Often abandoned chicks arrive at SANCCOB severely dehydrated, malnourished, and occasionally injured from an unsuccessful predation which impacts their chances of survival. SANCCOB is working with conservation authorities to ensure that abandoned chicks are removed as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of dehydration, weight loss and predation. SANCCOB as an organization is developing internal contingency plans to ensure that we can respond timeously and effectively to mass abandonments in the future.
Case Study: 2019 Flamingo Chick Crisis
In January 2019, SANCCOB Cape Town admitted 560 Lesser flamingo chicks, due to abandonment by their parents during a drought affecting Kamfers Dam in Kimberley. The chicks arrived in very poor condition and severely dehydrated, and unfortunately, some chicks did not survive the journey to Cape Town.
This was a first for SANCCOB; having never hand-reared flamingo chicks before so a steep learning curve unfolded for the team. Partner zoos and aquariums travelled from across the world to share their flamingo rearing and husbandry experience to assist us. This was an intense time during the first couple of weeks. Mortality was high during the first week; deaths ranged from general dehydration to yolk sac infection and salmonella.
SANCCOB received an enormous amount of support from the public; from donating much-needed items from our wish list to volunteering their time. The surviving Lesser flamingo juveniles were hand reared over several months and were transferred by air to a purpose-built quarantine facility in Kimberley for further evaluation before release back at Kamfers Dam. Each released juvenile flamingo was fitted with a numbered colour band on its leg, which will be used for post-release monitoring purposes.
Case Study: 2021 Cape Cormorant Crisis
On the 12 January 2021, during a routine vehicle patrol on Robben Island, SANCCOB’s Seabird Ranger Andile Mdluli, observed Kelp gulls predating on what appeared to be abandoned small Cape cormorant chicks. Besides being attacked by Kelp gulls (and later also by Sacred ibis), the chicks were also exposed to extreme heat. In consultation with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, the decision was made to wait until the evening in case the parents returned to their nest sites. Unfortunately, no parents returned which confirmed that the chicks had been abandoned and that intervention was necessary. It therefore decided that the young chicks would be rescued for hand-rearing at SANCCOB.
Assistance from Robben Island Museum’s Environmental Unit, Two Oceans Aquarium, and the National Sea Rescue Institute, 1865 Cape cormorant chicks were rescued over a three-day period. Many more chicks were lost to predation, heat stress and hypothermia, as the temperature dropped overnight. One week later, a similar situation unfolded on Jutten Island and a further 173 chicks were rescued with the help of SANParks, and the Pelican Watch volunteers. In total, 2,038 Cape cormorants were rescued and sent to SANCCOB for hand-rearing and rehabilitation, making this the second-largest seabird rescue since the MV Treasure oil spill in 2000.
Cape cormorants are known to be a challenging species to care for in a rehabilitation facility due to their tendency to imprint on humans. Many chicks were in poor condition when they were rescued: the capture, transportation, and initial stabilisation at SANCCOB unavoidably caused additional stress and many of the most compromised chicks did not survive the first week. 90% of all mortalities observed happened within the first eight days after rescue. During the following four months, the team hand-reared more than 1,000 birds.
Lack of food is the suspected reason for the mass abandonment, with low levels of small pelagic fish stocks, primarily sardine, cited by environmental scientists. The mismatch between timing of breeding and hot weather conditions was also a factor. Rising temperatures due to climate change will further negatively affect fish availability, so these mass abandonments may become more frequent. Cape cormorants are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and further reductions of their main prey, extreme weather events and other threats may well take this previously abundant species to the brink of extinction.