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Positive avian flu confirmed in wandering albatross in South Georgia

Tuesday, February 20th 2024 - 07:18 UTC
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Wandering albatross have tested positive for avian flu on Bird Island (Photo: Richard Phillips, BAS) Wandering albatross have tested positive for avian flu on Bird Island (Photo: Richard Phillips, BAS)

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) continues to affect the wildlife on the sub-antarctic islands of South Georgia. The latest results from samples taken from the islands reveal that the disease has now been detected in the wandering albatross (as at 9 February 2024).

Avian Influenza was first detected in the brown skua populations in October 2023, closely followed by kelp gulls. In January 2024, it was discovered as being present in elephant and fur seal populations. Whilst no penguins on the islands have yet tested positive for the disease, it has been detected in one bird on the nearby Falkland Islands.

The team at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), at Cambridge and on the islands, are working closely with the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) who govern the territory.

Recent samples were collected on the islands and tested in Weybridge, UK. Results show positive results for HPAI H5N1 in albatrosses, elephant seals, fur seals, brown skuas, kelp gulls and Antarctic terns.

BAS operates two research stations on South Georgia: King Edward Point and Bird Island. As a result of the confirmed cases of HPAI, fieldwork involving close contact with impacted species has been suspended. BAS staff continue to follow strict GSGSSI bio-security measures adopted this season of enhanced cleaning of clothing and field equipment when moving between sites with high densities of wildlife, as well as remaining vigilant for signs of disease.

Ash Bennison is the science manager for Bird Island Research Station, operated by BAS. He says: “It’s incredibly sad to witness the effects of avian flu on the animal populations we study on South Georgia. We are doing everything we can to mitigate the effects of this disease and are working closely with GSGSSI to continue our work to monitor and conserve these amazing species.”

Elements of the wider science program at King Edward Point and Bird Island continue under caution, including long-term monitoring of wandering albatross, black-browed albatross, grey-headed albatross, northern and southern giant petrels, gentoo penguins and macaroni penguins.

South Georgia has some of the most closely monitored seabird colonies in the world, equipping scientists and conservationists with indicators of change for species.

BAS and GSGSSI are working closely with DEFRA’s Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) to monitor and control the spread of the disease and to mitigate its impact on the region’s wildlife.

Laura Sinclair Willis, Chief Executive, Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, says: “The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands anticipated that High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza would likely arrive on our shores in the 23/24 austral summer, and we are grateful for the ongoing support of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, British Antarctic Survey, Ministry of Defense and the Antarctic cruise industry, along with a global community of partners and stakeholders who are helping us to monitor the impacts within the Territory.

“The transmission and spread of this disease is primarily a natural phenomenon, and we continue to emphasize the importance of scrupulous bio-security by all those entering South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.” (BAS)

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