Bird flu outbreak on Dyer Island causing mass deaths

An outbreak of avian influenza has been recorded on Dyer Island, situated off the coast of Gansbaai in the Overberg area of the Western Cape, that has led to the mass death of wild seabirds. 

The province’s local government, environmental affairs and development planning MEC, Anton Bredell, said the outbreak has occurred because the island is a breeding colony “where the birds are in close proximity to one another”.

Managed by CapeNature, Dyer Island is internationally recognised as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and hosts the vulnerable African penguins, endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern, among others.

“At the moment the Cape cormorant species is most affected, however, we are particularly concerned about the bank cormorant, a unique species of cormorant which is extremely rare and may also be affected,” Bredell said in a press statement on Tuesday. 

In an earlier statement announcing the outbreak on 14 October, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) said that “the first Cape cormorants were only diagnosed with this disease in mid-September and cases have increased very rapidly over the last week. Careful surveillance is being done wherever Cape cormorants congregate.”

According to Sanccob, mitigation measures include the removal of carcasses and sick birds, which are euthanised because they could further spread the virus. 

“The next 14 days will be critical, and we continue to ask the public to work with us and not to approach or transport any sick or dead birds,” said Bredell, adding: “It is a very complex situation to manage considering these are wild seabirds all along the coast of the Western Cape.”

Other hotspots include De Mond Nature Reserve and the Bergrivier municipality, where the outbreak was first recorded. 

A strain of bird flu was first detected in wild seabirds in May this year, but the mass fatalities recorded since 14 October are believed to be as a result of the start of the breeding season. 

Over the past weekend, an estimated 700 dead birds were recovered daily across the province where organisations such as Sanccob, SANParks and BirdLife South Africa as well as local veterinarians removed dead and sick birds. 

The virus does not pose a risk to people, but they can transmit it from infected birds to healthy ones when their clothes or hands are contaminated. Members of the public are urged to report unusual mortalities in any birds to their local municipality, conservation authority or state veterinarian here.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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