Experts fear mass wipe-out of penguins as Antarctica braces for bird flu

Emperor penguins and their chicks on the sea ice chicks on the sea ice in Antarctica
The virus, which has killed millions of birds across the globe, will have deadly consequences once it reaches the region - Peter Fretwell/British Antarctic Survey/PA

Thousands of penguins could be wiped out across Antarctica as the continent braces for the arrival of bird flu, experts fear.

In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, the head of polar regions for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office warned that the infection, which has killed millions of birds across the globe over the past year, will have deadly consequences once it reaches the region.

“It could be absolutely devastating,” said Dr Jane Rumble, OBE. “We’re saying when, not if.”

H5N1 is expected to emerge in the coming weeks as birds migrate from South America to breeding sites in the Antarctic.

The death toll could be exceptionally high, scientists say, as the continent is the breeding ground of more than 100 million birds.

Dr Tom Hart, a biologist who has been developing guidance on avian flu, said: “I don’t want to put a number on it but it’s extremely serious. Certain groups like seals, terns and penguins are likely to be impacted severely.

“Penguins are likely to be susceptible to it as they have fallen to other similar viruses. It could be pretty profound.”

Emperor penguin chicks (Aptenodytes forsteri), Snow Hill Island, Antarctica.
The huge concentration of bird flu cases in South America has heightened the threat facing the Antarctic - Thomas Kokta/Photolibrary RM

Although the disease predominantly spreads among birds, it has been shown to infect mammals too, including seals and sea lions.

To combat the risk, tourists visiting Antarctica this season may not be able to disembark from cruise ships if the worst-case scenario arises.

“They will keep everybody on board or just do Zodiac cruising,” said Dr Rumble. “Tourists might not necessarily have the holiday they expected.”

Colonies ‘could speed disease spread’

The huge concentration of bird flu cases in South America and speed of transmission has heightened the threat facing the Antarctic.

H5N1 was first detected in South America last October – after 2022’s migration had already begun – and spread rapidly from Colombia to Chile in just three months.

Chile and Peru alone have since lost more than 500,000 wild birds of at least 65 species and 20,000 mammals, according to a new report by the OFFLU, a global network of flu experts.

Actual mortality is thought to be many times higher due to the difficulties in testing.

Many species in Antarctica, like the famous emperor penguin and Antarctic fur seal, crowd together in large and dense colonies which could speed the spread of disease.

“Animals tend to concentrate together. Some sites will have gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, and they’re all basically together,” said Dr Rumble. “Their natural predators are in the water, so they don’t avoid each other on land.”

Antarctica's famous emperor penguin crowd together in large and dense colonies, which could speed the spread of disease
Antarctica's famous emperor penguin crowd together in large and dense colonies - Stefan Christmann

Local marine mammals face a similar risk; 95 per cent of Antarctic fur seals live around just one island, making them particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

H5N1 also threatens the conservation of several species – 36 per cent of the endangered Peruvian pelicans and 13 per cent of Chile’s vulnerable Humboldt penguins have been wiped out, for example.

As Antartica has never had an outbreak of the highly pathogenic bird flu circulating the globe – only one of two continents not to have been affected – its species are thought to have little immunity to the virus.

Preventing wild birds from spreading the virus is an impossible feat, but officials have increased biosecurity measures for researchers and tourists.

“We are enhancing the biosecurity protocols to prevent human exacerbation. Visitors are getting hoovered – literally – to get seeds out of clothes and bags. Boots will be disinfected when they go ashore so they’re not transmitting any kind of disease from one site to another,” Ms Rumble said.

“For the first time, we’re asking tourists not to sit down as it runs the risk of contamination. We’re saying keep a distance from the animals. Tour operators are even saying ‘Don’t crouch’ – it’s the gateway to the sit.”

How worried should we be about avian flu?
How worried should we be about avian flu?

Such measures are increasingly important as the number of tourists has skyrocketed.

This season, which runs from October to March, more than 115,000 tourists are expected to set sail to the continent – the highest number recorded. In the 2015-16 season, the total was just 38,478.

Scientists who interact with birds as part of their job are also being asked if their work must be undertaken this season or if it can be put back a year.

While avian flu is Antarctica’s most urgent problem this season, Dr Rumble said many of the birds are facing other threats, from overfishing to climate change.

Antarctica is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Last month it was reported that up to 10,000 emperor penguin chicks were killed after the sea-ice melted and broke apart before they could develop the waterproof feathers needed to swim in the open ocean.

“Antarctica is a pretty brutal place,” said Dr Rumble.

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