Avian flu puts penguins in peril?

In a press release today (see text below), the government of Ecuador announced the likely presence of avian flu in Galapagos.  Avian flu has been circulating widely around the world in 2023, affecting domestic livestock (chickens, turkeys, ducks) and wild birds alike.   The virus is transmitted in large part by wild birds, most particularly aquatic birds such as ducks, geese, swans, gulls, and terns, and shorebirds, such as storks, plovers, and sandpipers. As a number of migratory shore bird species move from as far as the Arctic through North, Central and South America to and through Galapagos, it is not surprising that the flu appears to have made it here. 

The flu can cause significant mortality in wild birds but poses little risk to humans.  Combined with the current El Niño conditions in Galapagos, marine birds in Galapagos will likely be under significant pressure in the coming months.  Of particular concern may be the Galapagos penguins whose natural population numbers tend to reach no more than 2,000 to 3,000 or so individuals.  


Range of the Galapagos Penguin


In response to the detection of the H5N1 virus, the park has closed visitor sites where it was detected.  It is also asking all tour operators to redouble sanitation protocols when going to visitor sites.  If you are on an upcoming trip to Galapagos, and if you were planning on visiting some of these sites, it’s likely that alternative sites will be proposed during your visit. 




Recently, naturalist guides have been reporting an unusual number of dead birds on several Galapagos island.  In response to these reports, the technical team of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park (DPNG) and the Agency for Control and Regulation of Biosafety and Quarantine for Galapagos (ABG) carried out some sampling and laboratory analysis to determine the cause of death of the animals. Preliminarily, of the five specimens examined, three of them tested positive for H5N1 avian influenza; The collected material will be forwarded on to the National Health Research Institute Public (INSPI) in Guayaquil, for confirmation.

In response, the National Environmental Authority in the archipelago has activated the biosafety protocols to reduce the risk of dispersion of the virus. Among the first actions, the closure of the visitor sites where affected birds have been detected was ordered: Genovesa and Punta Pitt (San Cristóbal Island) and preventively Punta Suarez and Punta Cevallos (Española island).  In addition, a communiqué was issued to tour operators to strengthen the disinfection process of footwear and clothing when accessing other visitor sites, and to continually disinfect outdoor common areas and tenders that are used for the disembarkation of passengers.

The DPNG and the ABG monitor the habitat and nesting areas of the populations of endemic birds such as penguins and Galapagos cormorants and today, it deployed several teams to other parts of the archipelago to evaluate the situation. Naturalist guides, who are the eyes of the Park, have been asked to  reinforce their monitoring of animal behavior and to immediately report any unusual observations.

“The Park deeply regrets the arrival of this virus to Galapagos. We have mobilized all our resources and experts to implement measures that reduce their impact on this unique ecosystem. However, we make an urgent call to the population: If you find sick or dead birds, do not touch them or pick them up,” said the Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, José Antonio Dávalos.



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