Keeping South African Penguins Safe from Disease
Penguin expert Ralph Vanstreels, a PhD student from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil was supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to keep an eye on the penguin chicks currently being hand-reared in South Africa. Ralph managed to spare some time from his busy schedule to send us the following post:
In 1956, the African penguin population was estimated at 141'000 pairs. In 2010, little over 21'000 remain. Oil spills, unregulated fisheries, climate change and other human-related issues are behind this dramatic decline. Today, only seven islands support 80% of the world population of African penguins.
Because of how threatened these birds have become, SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) and IFAW have joined efforts to protect these animals.
When it comes to penguin rehabilitation, the last thing most people would think of is a tropical disease, like malaria. Surprisingly, this is one of the most relevant diseases that may threaten the health of subtropical and tropical penguins, such as the Magellanic penguins (breeding in Argentina, Chile and the Falklands) or the African penguins (breeding in South Africa and Namibia). Whenever the protozoan (Plasmodium sp.) infects these penguins, they may develop a severe disease and die shortly after. Mortality rates may reach up to 80%. Other blood parasites, such as Babesia or Borrelia, are also frequent among these birds and threaten their ability to recover in rehabilitation. In fact, in some years these blood parasites were responsible for as much as 25% of all penguins dying at SANCCOB.
As a veterinarian working with penguins in Brazil, I have been deeply surprised and interested in why blood parasites affect penguins so severely. This led me to join a PhD program in veterinary pathology, in which I am studying penguin malaria and other blood parasites, to better understand this disease and develop new strategies to help preventing it in penguin rehabilitation centers. In South America, I had the opportunity to work along with several rehabilitation centers associated to the IFAW Penguin Network, conducting research, identifying outbreaks and comparing the success of different prevention and treatment strategies.
This summer SANCCOB and the African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project (APCBP) partners have rescued nearly 500 abandoned penguin chicks for artificial rearing and release. At the end of the breeding season the adults enter their annual moulting cycle. During this time the birds do not feed themselves and chicks left in the colony are abandoned by the adults – unless these birds are rescued by APCBP partners and reared by SANCCOB, they would face a certain death due to dehydration and starvation. Hot temperatures and high-density conditions at the rehabilitation centre create the perfect settings for a blood parasite outbreak. Through an IFAW grant, I joined SANCCOB’s team to help with the diagnosis of these blood parasites and monitor the animals through clinical exams.
I have been working hard with Dr. Nola Parsons, SANCCOB’s chief veterinarian, to keep the penguins' health in check. The pace has been incredible, and we have been able to perform thorough blood exams for nearly 150 penguins in a single week! Also, in the unfortunate events of penguin deaths, I have performed post-mortem exams to try to determine the cause of death. These results are then immediately used by Dr. Parsons, to adjust treatments and rehabilitation procedures, guaranteeing the success of the rehabilitation effort.
Day by day, we see the penguin chicks growing older and stronger! We see it when we look at them, and I see it in their blood exams as well, in which they gradually progress and have increasingly better results. They are growing, loosing their down feathers, learning to swim and to feed, and getting ready to be released back into the wild; and we look forward to have them released soon!
For more information about IFAW efforts to protect animals around the world, visit www.ifaw.org