As the coronavirus infects more people around the world, conservationists are warning of the risk to another vulnerable species: Africa’s mountain gorilla
Neighboring Rwanda also is temporarily shutting down tourism and research activities in three national parks that are home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.
Mountain gorillas are prone to some respiratory illnesses that afflict humans. A common cold can kill a gorilla, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, one reason why tourists tracking gorillas are not normally permitted to get too close.
Around 1,000 mountain gorillas live in protected areas in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, for whom tourism is an important source of revenue. But COVID-19 has led to restrictive measures.
Virunga National Park’s decision has been welcomed by conservationists in the region.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, told The Associated Press that “every possible effort must be made” to protect mountain gorillas because so few are left in the wild.
“We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases,” she said. “If anyone has a cold or a flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas. With coronavirus having such a long time of no symptoms in some cases, it means that we could actually put those gorillas at risk.”
Even existing measures may not be enough to protect them.
According to Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with Conservation Through Public Health, a study published this year by her group and Ohio University showed that measures in place to protect gorillas from humans are not effective in practice.
The rule on keeping a safe distance from the gorillas was broken almost every time a group of tourists visited, she said.
“What the research found is that the 7-meter rule was broken almost all the time … like 98% of the time,” she said. “But what was interesting is that 60% of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40% of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”
If close interaction cannot be prevented, she said, one measure that could potentially improve safety is requiring tourists to wear masks at all times.
Uganda has not announced a shutdown of gorilla tourism, although tourist traffic from Europe and elsewhere has dwindled.
A spokesman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Bashir Hangi, said the decision on whether to shut down gorilla tourism is now academic as there is almost no business amid the outbreak.
Still, he said, the few tourists who come are screened for fever and other symptoms and must obey rules such as not standing within 7 meters (21 feet) of a gorilla family. Visitors from virus-affected countries who have gone through quarantine in Uganda need to produce what he called a certificate of isolation before they are permitted to track the gorillas.
Amos Wekesa, whose Great Lakes Safaris organizes gorilla tours in Rwanda and Uganda, spoke mournfully of “hardly any business” as tourists postpone visits or seek refunds.
The region’s mountain gorilla population dropped sharply in the past century because of poaching, illness and human encroachment. Mountain gorillas have been listed as critically endangered or endangered since 1996, although their numbers are now said to be growing as a result of conservation efforts.
But there have been painful losses. Some gorillas die of natural causes, falling from trees or being killed in fights between males for territory or dominance. A lightning strike killed four mountain gorillas in February.
In Rwanda, where tourism is the top foreign exchange earner, the government has prioritized the protection of gorillas, even launching a naming ceremony for baby primates.
Tourism revenue is key in protecting mountain gorillas as authorities can use some of the money to help local communities or invest in anti-poaching activities. A gorilla tracking permit costs up to $600 in Uganda, and thousands of tourists pay each year. A similar permit costs upward of $1,000 in Rwanda.
Some worry the loss of tourist revenue during the coronavirus pandemic could further expose the primates to poachers. Virunga, established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has long been vulnerable in a volatile part of eastern Congo.
“I think this is going to have a huge impact on their sustainability,” Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist, said of Virunga. “I call on all donors and governments that support these national parks in Africa to make it easy for the parks that need to shut down to do so and survive.”
Poachers could do even more damage to gorillas if they think the anti-poaching efforts have been reduced, she said.
Tina Smole in Kampala, Uganda, contributed.
MORE ON CORONAVIRUS AND GORILLAS
Coronavirus and Disease: How You Can Help Protect Mountain Gorillas
The Coronavirus (COVID) outbreak is naturally of serious concern and we have received some questions about eastern gorilla susceptibility to this novel virus. Gorilla Doctors has been on the forefront of research in emerging pandemic threats and zoonotic spillover for the past 10 years with our implementation of the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project, including the identification of several known and novel coronavirus strains in wildlife.1 While to date there have been only two laboratory-confirmed human COVID cases on the African continent (in Algeria and Egypt), tourists are coming from around the world and visiting habituated gorillas daily. Gorilla Doctors is working closely with government wildlife authorities to mitigate the risks of (any) disease transfer from humans to gorillas and there are simple but highly effective actions tourists can also take to help protect endangered gorillas.
Gorillas and Disease Transmission
Approximately 60% of the 1,063 mountain gorillas in the world are habituated to the presence of people (park personnel, tourists, researchers, veterinarians, etc.) to facilitate conservation, tourism, and research. These gorillas are in daily close proximity with people and are therefore uniquely at risk for contracting human pathogens.
It is currently unknown if great apes are susceptible to the SARS CoV-2 virus. However, great apes, including gorillas, are known to be susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. In 2009, human metapneumovirus (HMPV) contributed to the death of two mountain gorillas during a severe outbreak of respiratory illness.2 This virus and others have also caused illness and death in wild chimpanzees.
You Can Help Protect Gorillas
The most effective measure for the prevention of the introduction of SARS CoV-2 virus (or any pathogen) to human-habituated eastern (mountain and Grauer’s) gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo is to minimize direct and indirect contact between gorillas and infected people.
If you are a tourist planning to visit gorillas, the following are the most effective actions you can take to protect them. While these measures may seem simple, they can have a significant impact on minimizing the transfer of infection while we are guests in their home environment:
- Follow tourism rules: maintain a distance of at least 7 meters (21 feet) from gorillas at all times. If the gorillas move closer to you, follow your guide’s instructions to move away. We understand the desire for closeness and even contact with these extraordinary animals, but even if you do not feel sick, it is possible you are carrying a virus or bacteria without exhibiting symptoms, so any contact could place the gorillas at risk.
- If you or anyone with you is sick (e.g. coughing, sneezing, feverish, suffering a sore throat) do not put the gorillas at risk by visiting them.
- If you have to sneeze or cough while in the presence of gorillas (even if wearing a mask), cover your mouth and nose with the crook of your elbow; do not use your hands. If you must use your hands, carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you to disinfect immediately after.
Gorilla Doctors Supports Gorilla Tourism
Despite the risk of disease transmission to gorillas, responsible tourism is vital to the long-term conservation of these endangered animals. People have asked if it is better to leave the gorillas unhabituated, but science has shown that the level of protection and veterinary care that gorillas receive because they are habituated has made them the only great ape whose numbers in the wild are increasing.3
Gorilla Doctors’ hands-on veterinary work is possible only with human-habituated gorillas; we cannot get close enough to unhabituated gorillas to treat individuals, which means that in the event of a disease outbreak, Gorilla Doctors ability to help would be extremely limited. Having 60% of the mountain gorilla population habituated to the presence of humans means we can provide direct veterinary care in the case of illness or injury, and our work has been credited for half of the annual population growth rate of habituated mountain gorillas.3 And gorilla tourism, when safely and properly conducted, generates critical revenue for the parks, so that they can protect these endangered species. Gorilla Doctors supports responsible gorilla tourism and encourages tourists to be proactive in helping us minimize the risks of disease transmission.
1Nziza, et al. (2019). EcoHealth Online
2Palacios et al. (2011). Emerging Infectious Diseases 17: 711-713
3Robbins et al. (2011). PLoS One 6(6): e19788