The deadly bird flu H5N1, which has already killed millions of birds around the world, is now threatening endangered birds in such isolated places as the Galápagos and Antarctica.
In Antarctica, penguin populations are especially vulnerable, according to this article. And not only will penguins, terns, and other seabirds be affected but also seals and other marine mammals.
In the Galápagos, where dozens of sick and dead birds have been discovered, three of five tested birds — two frigate birds and one red-footed booby — have died from the virus. As this article notes, visitor sites have been closed on Española Island, where scientists are particularly worried about an endemic and endangered breed of albatross.
Sadly, because of the isolation of these places, the birds in the Galápagos and Antarctica have little immunity to bird flu and other viruses. And in the Galápagos, scientists are concerned about the endemic species that are found nowhere else and whose numbers are already small.
Fortunately, the dangers of this virus are on the radar of tour companies. As the Telegraph points out, “tourists visiting Antarctica this season may not be able to disembark from cruise ships if the worst-case scenario arises.” Biosecurity measures are being stepped up as well; while for decades all visitors to Antarctica disinfected boots before and after setting foot on land, now even vacuums are being used, and tourists are being advised not to sit or even to crouch near the ground.
And while protecting the birds is priority enough, we humans should also keep in mind that bird flu can spread to humans as well. As the Guardian notes, “A warning has been issued calling on tourists … not to try to touch affected birds. Avian influenza can be transmitted to humans.” And there is some concern that bird flu could lead to our next pandemic.
With record-breaking numbers of visitors to both of these remote and isolated places, perhaps this latest news will give tourists pause — and give the animals a chance at avoiding this deadly flu.