Due to avian flu, what used to be a vacation spot in northern Chile full of tourists sighting the marine fauna has become the ground where sanitary brigades look for dead birds likely killed by the deadly virus following the closure of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, in the Coquimbo region.
The move on Damas Island seeks to preserve 56% of the reproductive pairs from this disease in Chile and also in southern Peru.
The Chilean National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca) reported that, so far in 2023, 10% of the population of this characteristic penguin has already died. Sernapesca's regional head of conservation and biodiversity Gerardo Cerda told AFP that the Humboldt penguin is in a vulnerable conservation category and probably after this it will be in another category, much more at risk.
For the past six months, teams from the Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG), the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), and Sernapesca have been doubling down their efforts to prevent the spread of avian flu in the reserve, which also contains sea lions, small petrels and guanay cormorants. For this reason, patrols go around the island collecting carcasses.
Two weeks ago, the death of thousands of cormorants on the coast of Coquimbo doubled the number of environmental brigades struggling to quickly collect their remains. Although the reason for the death of the more than 3,500 cormorants is unknown, bird flu is not ruled out as the cause of the tragedy.
SAG Regional Director Jorge Mautz said that the causes of the mortality are still being sought. Beyond bird flu, it could be the El Niño current, climate change, or toxins in the sea, he explained.
The avian flu, known as the H5N1 virus, affected some 50 species in Chile, including pelicans, chungungos, and seagulls. In Humboldt, more than 1,300 penguins and 8,000 other marine species, mostly sea lions, died. Since last December, SAG found more than 38,000 dead wild birds.
Cerda explained that the dead penguins are probably many more than the figure mentioned since there are sectors with cliffs where the specimens can strand and not be seen.
Reserve Administrator Pablo Arrospide reported that after a final patrol, officials returned with 25 corpses of red-headed jotes, Dominican gulls, and cormorants, but no penguins: It is distressing to see how these birds begin to die or become ill. We have never had a crisis of these characteristics.
Chile is home to 40% of the world's population of sea lions, with about 200,000 specimens. And in 13 of the country's 16 regions, dead sea lions were detected, a species that had not been affected by the bird flu epidemic before. So far in 2023, the number of dead sea lions is almost twice as many as that accumulated for different causes in the last 14 years.
China, Egypt, and Vietnam, among other countries, have organized vaccination campaigns against bird flu. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes this is a good measure to decrease the number of cases and reduce the risk to humans, but the use of the vaccine is still mainly aimed at poultry and would have certain risks.
Christopher Hamilton-West, a specialist in veterinary epidemiology at the University of Chile, warned AFP that when there is no good vaccination strategy, the virus can be induced to evolve and generate differences that escape those that the vaccines combat. And he added that they are not being used in Chile because vaccines do not cure infected animals and only slow down the spread of the virus.
There is still no evidence that avian flu is transmitted between humans. But, as Chilean epidemiologist from the Universidad Católica del Norte, Muriel Ramírez, warned, it has affected other mammals and is one step away from mutating and affecting people directly.