Vaccine could save endangered California condors from succumbing to chook flu

Enlarge / A numbered and tagged California Condor within the wild.

Early March final yr, an endangered California condor—one among lower than 350 of its variety surviving within the wild—perched on an Arizona cliff face staring into area for days. It’s most likely sick from lead poisoning, thought Tim Hauck, the condor program director with The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit conservation group serving to to reintroduce condors to the skies above Grand Canyon and Zion. These bald-headed scavengers—weighing as much as 25 kilos with black-feathered wings spanning almost 10 ft—usually fall sufferer to steer publicity after they eat the flesh of cows, coyotes, and different giant mammals killed by ranchers and hunters firing lead bullets. Listlessness and droopy posture are telltale indicators. “We had been like, I wager this chook’s obtained into one thing dangerous,” stated Hauck.

His crew of eight wildlife biologists stationed at Arizona’s scenic Vermillion Cliffs Nationwide Monument, 150 miles north of Flagstaff, hoped the ailing condor would glide down off its 1,000-foot sandstone ledge to go to their feeding station, the place they might lure it to do a well being examination. The Peregrine Fund gives supplemental meals for the condors—most of which had been raised in captivity and launched into the wild—partially so the biologists can simply catch them for normal checkups, present remedy for lead poisoning, vaccinate towards West Nile virus, and replace gear used to trace the condors’ whereabouts.

Per week later, when the sick chook did lastly get trapped on the feeding station, Hauck instantly observed one thing he hadn’t seen earlier than in lead-poisoned condors. Its eyes had been cloudy, a situation known as corneal edema. He consulted with Stephanie Lamb, a veterinarian who volunteers at Liberty Wildlife Middle, a Peregrine Fund accomplice group in Phoenix. He wished to know if she thought the condor is likely to be in poor health from one thing extra worrisome than lead poisoning: extremely pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, the virus answerable for the deaths of tens of millions of untamed birds and home chickens worldwide over the last two years. HPAI kills 90 to 100% of home poultry it infects, usually inside 48 hours, although much less is understood concerning the mortality charges for wild birds. Corneal edema, Lamb informed him, was certainly on the listing of signs.

Hauck’s crew rushed the condor four-and-a-half hours south to the Liberty Wildlife Middle’s quarantine for emergency care and testing. Then, as they had been nonetheless ready for the outcomes, the state of affairs in Vermillion Cliffs turned worse: A lifeless condor was noticed close to a cave the place she’d been nesting. The crew recovered the carcass and instantly shipped it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, with an pressing request for an expedited necropsy. Recognizing the grave risk critically endangered California condors would face from an avian flu outbreak, the lab quickly confirmed fears that the condor had succumbed to chook flu.

A wave of panic washed over Hauck and his crew. Condors are social creatures. They roost in teams and collect in hungry hoards to devour decaying animal corpses, sharing saliva and pooping in every single place. Hauck describes it as a “feeding frenzy”—ultimate circumstances for the illness to unfold. What’s extra, the virus thrives in damp, chilly circumstances; it had been a moist spring, and condors nest in caves, which are typically humid and cooler than the surface air. Hauck anxious that the illness, transmitted via the air and physique fluids, would explode via the condor inhabitants “like wildfire.” He knew they needed to include it.

With the feeding station already closed to cease the birds from congregating, the biologists suited up in protecting gear. Their aim was to get better the lifeless to forestall them from infecting different scavenging animals, and to rescue any sick condors they had been in a position to seize for therapy at Liberty Wildlife Middle.

Working 14-hour days, climbing up cliffs, rappelling down canyons, and scouring the shores of the Colorado River by boat, they recovered lifeless condors virtually every day. It felt like a nightmare that will by no means finish, Hauck stated. “It was a three-week interval the place we misplaced 21 birds.” Each carcass recovered examined optimistic for HPAI.

In lower than a month, almost 20 p.c of the Southwest California condor inhabitants in Arizona and Utah had vanished. Conservationists anxious that the virus would subsequent strike condors in California. Then, as shortly because the virus flared up, it fizzled. With spring chook migration season winding down, and a return to sizzling, sunny days, Arizona’s condors stopped dying, and the condors in California had been spared.

Recognizing that the outbreak might have been a lot worse—wiping out dozens extra condors in a number of states, and probably even killing animals within the captive-breeding flock stored in zoos—the US Fish and Wildlife Service made a plea to the US Division of Agriculture to authorize emergency use of an avian flu vaccine to inoculate condors in case of one other outbreak.

It was a longshot. Whereas vaccines for HPAI are utilized in another nations, US well being officers have by no means approved vaccination for any animal within the nation—not even poultry—for causes starting from sensible to political. However within the face of a lethal risk to one of many nation’s most endangered species, the condor advocates hoped they might persuade the USDA to make an unprecedented exception.