Galápagos Islands Heighten Biosecurity Measures Amid Avian Influenza Outbreak
The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, have heightened biosecurity measures following the confirmation of three bird deaths from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. The birds in question, two frigate birds and a red-footed booby, were tested after samples were sent to Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland.
Protecting the Islands’ Diverse Bird Population
The Galápagos National Park has increased its efforts to safeguard the islands’ 78 species of endemic and native birds. These species include flightless cormorants, the only species of penguin in the northern hemisphere, and a large albatross colony.
First observed by Charles Darwin during his visit in 1835, these bird species are particularly vulnerable due to their low immunity, small populations, and the impact of rising ocean temperatures.
The Possible Source of the Virus
The virus is suspected to have been brought to the islands by migratory birds. In the previous year, Ecuador declared an emergency due to avian influenza outbreaks on farms.
The highly infectious virus had a devastating impact on seabird populations in neighboring Peru, resulting in the deaths of up to 200,000 birds and significantly impacting marine mammals like sea lions.
Emergency Health Protocols in Action
Emergency health protocols were activated in the Galápagos National Park following reports of numerous dead and sick birds on Wolf and Genovesa islands. Red-footed boobies showed a higher number of deaths and more symptoms characteristic of bird flu.
Two visitor sites on Española Island, the breeding site for the critically endangered waved albatross, were closed, although no birds there have been confirmed to have the virus.
The Threat to Endemic Species and Tourism
The primary concern lies with the endemic species, given their small populations restricted to the Galápagos. The avian flu also poses a threat to other species including boobies, albatross, and the endangered Galápagos penguin, whose food sources are becoming scarcer due to El Niño. This added stress makes these birds more susceptible to pathogens such as avian flu.
Scientists are also worried about the potential for the virus to affect endangered Galápagos sea lions and fur seals, mirroring the situation on the mainland.
Tourists visiting the UNESCO Natural Heritage of Humanity site have been warned not to touch affected birds, as avian influenza can be transmitted to humans. Moreover, the disease could have a detrimental impact on tourism, which is the islands’ main economic activity.
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