All research activities involving the handling of seabirds have been halted across the country following the avian influenza outbreak among seabirds, the Department of Environmental Affairs said on Friday.
The department said this was in an effort to manage the spread of the disease.
Spokesperson Zolile Nqayi urged members of the public to exercise caution when approaching seabirds, especially those found along the beach, and when visiting seabird colonies.
"Sick seabirds should be reported to the nearest local veterinarian, conservation authority or to permitted seabird rehabilitation centres," he said in a statement.
Nqayi said the department, together with all relevant management authorities, was managing seabird colonies and had implemented stringent biosecurity measures at various seabird rehabilitation centres, captive institutions and known breeding localities.
He said this was to address the spread of the H5N8 strain of the avian influenza that was affecting several seabird species, including swift terns, African penguins and Cape gannets, along the country's coastline.
The swift terns seemed to be the most affected seabird species, Nqayi said.
Declining seabird populations under pressure
He revealed that the "highly pathogenic" H5N8 avian influenza was the same strain reported in the poultry industry in 2017.
"This strain of bird flu has not been found to affect people, as was confirmed through testing of people in contact with infected chickens in South Africa in 2017.
"However, bird flu viruses can, in rare cases, cause infections in humans. Thus, strict biosecurity measures should be enforced and precautions should be taken when handling affected seabirds," Nqayi said.
He added that wild birds were carriers of the disease and were able to carry the disease through flyways.
"In seabirds, the disease is spread through direct contact between healthy and infected birds. Most seabird species live in colonies, and may contract the disease from each other, or through indirect contact with contaminated equipment or other materials."
The current outbreak has added more pressure on already declining seabird populations, he said.
"Processes are in place to ensure extended surveillance of infected seabirds."
Nqayi added that the department would exercise even stricter precautions and stringent biosecurity measures during preparation for a voyage to Marion Island in April.