The devastating effect of the first ever recorded epidemic of highly pathogenic Avian Influenza virus in 2018 resulted in a significant die-off of seabirds, including African penguins, thereby further affecting this already threatened species found only along the western and southern coast of Africa; namely Namibia and South Africa. The fragile population of avian wildlife found here has catastrophically decreased in numbers by 95% in the last century. Still today, little is known about the effect of disease or poor health on the penguin population and any new diseases could have devastating consequences for the survival of this species, which at current projections may have only 20-80 years left.

How the project shaped up

Coincidentally, around the time the epidemic struck, Prof Darrell Abernethy, had joined the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Veterinary Science and had commenced an avian research platform to focus on endangered birds. Under the auspices of the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), it was concluded that research into the epidemiology and control of Avian Influenza was paramount.

This research study has taken a while to get underway due to its muti-disciplinarian nature involving a range of scientists, representatives from government, conservation agencies and NGO’s from South Africa, Namibia, Germany, UK and the USA. Funding was obtained from multiple sources; including National Geographic and Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Trust for the surveys in Namibia and SA respectively, MeerWissen in Germany, surveillance projects by Dnata and Emirates and equipment from Hettich and local scientific company Labotec. With the necessary sponsorship and contingency measures in place to deal with the dwindling penguin population, the study is only now taking shape.

Getting started and zoning in

According to Prof Abernethy, a survey of African penguins was proposed, requiring blood samples to be collected from colonies throughout South Africa and Namibia. Three “zones” were identified (Namibia, SW/southern Cape and Eastern Cape) and a sample size of just over 1100 was calculated. Given the size, expense and logistics of such a survey, it was decided to maximise its value by collecting a range of samples to assess multiple diseases/conditions. However, the population of penguins at a major colony in the Eastern Cape (St Croix island) had crashed since the survey was designed, leading the conservation authorities to refuse permission to sample there. Accordingly, the Eastern Cape survey was reduced and the project now consists of two zones (Namibia and South Africa), with the third zone comprising a longer-term study of birds submitted to SANCCOB.

The blood sampling assignment

Labotec was approached in May 2020, and through their German partner, Hettich, donated two centrifuges type EBA 270 and Haematokrit 200, essential for blood sampling that literally forms the heart of the study. The researchers involved are currently collecting up to 20 ml of blood from each bird. According to the veterinarian Laura Roberts who is overseeing the survey, the Hettich EBA 270 enables the researchers to obtain sufficient serum from the samples obtained for serology to investigate the disease, as well as allow bio banking and thus further research for the next 3 to 5 years.

“The centrifuge, especially the Hettich EBA 270, is essential for the survey. We could allow the blood samples to clot naturally, but spinning them down improves efficiency and the amount of serum we can collect. The capillary haematocrit will be used also in the longer term for health evaluation studies”, says Prof Abernethy. The survey results can be expanded to other endangered bird species.  Already, similar surveys for endangered raptors/vultures are being developed.

The project will also include a range of complementary studies: assessment of health status; presence of haemoparasites and endoparasites; levels of toxic compounds; and tools for improving surveillance, including the use of an app by beachwalkers and drones for monitoring colonies. All the data will be used by a group of experts to assess current computer models and develop new insights into African penguin health.

The road ahead and further challenges

Prof Abernethy added, “Going forward, we will be fund-raising to maximise the value of the survey and the bio banked samples”.  “We need to test for Newcastle disease, as it has been identified as potentially significant; however, its status in African penguins is unknown.  We also hope to further test for a range of diseases that was identified in earlier surveys.  This information will be essential for the modelling work that will assess if and how diseases are affecting the sustainability of the penguin population and if this is contributing to their ongoing decline. Lastly, there is a need to validate lab-tests for the work we want to do.  Currently, tests are based on domestic poultry, raising questions about their validity when used in wild birds”.

The flu survey should commence within the next month, subject to regulatory approval.

For the latest updates on the penguin project, you can check our their website here Africanpenguinhealth.co.za