Apes are endangered primarily because of habitat loss and poaching but increasingly, we are seeing that disease is becoming an important co-factor to their endangerment. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans are feared to be at risk from the new coronavirus because they share between 97 percent and 99 percent of their DNA with humans.
Leading conservationist, Ian Redmond, says “there is abundant evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens and therefore, highly likely to be susceptible to COVID-19 infection and possibly, with a higher mortality rate than among humans”.
With the exception of orangutans, which are semi-solitary, it is no surprise that infectious diseases can wipe out a large population of highly social gorillas and chimpanzees. Although COVID-19 has not yet been reported in great apes, given the history of zoonotic diseases – especially their rapid spread and difficult containment – we should assume that transmission is likely and strict measures are needed to prevent it.
Primate tourism can introduce risk of disease transmission if safety guidelines are not adhered to. There is a short observation period of one hour and a seven-metre distance. However gorillas may wander closer to visitors, and not all tourists follow the rules. COVID-19 is more of a concern than perhaps some other diseases as it survives as a viable virus for up to three days, depending on the surface it is on.
Since the 1960s, biologist and conservationist George Schaller had observed upper and lower respiratory infections and diseases in great apes. It is estimated that 40 percent of pathogens are known to be transferable from humans and apes.
In 1995, Gabon lost over 90 percent of its gorilla and chimpanzee population to an ebola outbreak. Ebola, which affects both humans and other great apes, led to a mortality rate of up to 95 percent in gorillas, according to the UN’s Great Apes Survival Partnership. This Partnership has calculated that some of these populations will need more than 130 years to recover and contraction of COVID-19 will add to these challenges.
Similarly, in 2013, there was a lethal outbreak of human rhinovirus C among wild chimpanzees in Uganda. Throughout the year-long outbreak, most became sick, and five of the 56 chimpanzees died. In addition, 2015 to 2019 data drawn from the Budongo Conservation Field Station National Chimpanzee Monitoring Programme revealed that of the eight monitored chimpanzee communities in Uganda, six had respiratory diseases, predominately transmitted from forest edge communities.
In September 2019, four males of high rank in Sonso, Western Uganda, died of human rhinovirus C and 59 out of 67 chimpanzees were infected by the human rhinovirus C, which equates to 88 percent. Lower respiratory diseases are far more serious in chimpanzees, which is the danger with COVID-19.
Adult males, as with humans, are more at risk, presumably because females have two X chromosomes that contain programming for the immune system, whereas males have one X chromosome. Significantly, if there were to be a high mortality rate in adult male silverback gorillas then this will lead to social disruption and infanticide.
Wildlife sanctuaries and parks across the world shut tourism-related activities after the new coronavirus spread to 176 countries. Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries inhabited by great apes, shut their parks and sanctuaries in March 2020.
All vets and rangers at ape sanctuaries such as The Chimpanzee Trust and Sanctuary at Ngamba Island in Uganda and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on the island of Borneo are now wearing masks during health checks of the primates and spending more time washing fruit and vegetables.
In addition, all people entering parks must have their temperatures checked and boots must be disinfected. Some keepers have chosen to live on-site and away from their families. However, once the pandemic slows down and they re-open, there will need to be lasting changes that limit contact and education about zoonotic diseases and their threat to great apes.
Even before the outbreak, people were asked to stay seven metres away from gorillas at all times. New guidance from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls for a minimum distance of 10 metres from great apes, with visits by humans reduced to the minimum needed to ensure their safety and health. No person who is ill, or who has been in contact with a sick person in the preceding 14 days, should be allowed near them.
In 2003, veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka established Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in Uganda as a result of concerns about the spread of disease. There are 18 gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, attracting 30,000 to 40,000 tourists a year. COVID-19 has enabled a review of the great ape viewing regulations. The outbreak of COVID-19 led to ranger training workshops in March 2020 to uphold distance measures.
In 2014, CTPH quantified how many times distance rules were broken; 60 percent of humans made contact at less than three metres whereas 40 percent of gorillas initiated contact at less than three metres. CTPH will be enforcing mandatory hand washing using soap, water and disinfectant before trekking.
In addition, cloth masks are being made by one of The Explorations Company’s charity partners, Ride 4 a Woman, who normally make crafts for tourists. Without tourists, Ride 4 a Woman have no business and workers subsequently laid off work. The International Gorilla Conservation Program stepped in to fund them to make fabric masks.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, additional park staff will receive the same training to ensure that these regulations are enforced to further protect gorillas and chimpanzees from human diseases. In addition, as soon as gorillas are habituated, they lose fear of people and so come into closer contact with communities. CTPH are working with communities to improve sanitation and hygiene measures as well as to provide guidance on what to do if they come into close contact with gorillas in order to not make them sick.
The protection of great apes is largely funded by ecotourism such as gorilla trekking and the money tourism brings in also provides a financial incentive for governments and local communities to protect wildlife. With sanctuaries and parks closed in Africa and Asia, revenue from tourism has evaporated in recent months.
This could lead to a shortfall for national park authorities but could also have a negative impact on local communities that benefit from tourism as well as lodge owners. If villagers need to look for alternative sources of income then poaching levels will increase and with a reduction of income, there will be a decrease in anti-poaching patrols.
Two of The Explorations Company’s charity partners work to conserve and raise public awareness about great apes: The Chimpanzee Trust and Sanctuary at Ngamba Island in Uganda and Conservation Heritage – Turambe in Rwanda.
The Chimpanzee Trust and Sanctuary at Ngamba Island are pivotal in chimpanzee conservation. Founded in 1998, the Trust has become a leader in chimpanzee-focused environmental conservation through research and surveys, the care and welfare of rescued chimpanzees, increased public awareness of broader conservation issues as well as in engaging with communities living alongside chimpanzee populations.
The Chimpanzee Trust care for 50 rescued chimpanzees on Ngamba Island, a 95-acre (38 hectare) forested island in Lake Victoria. The Sanctuary is a 45-minute boat trip from the city of Entebbe. Before their rescue, many chimpanzees, aged between two and 35 years, were orphaned, kept as pets and some used in circuses.
The Trust care for the chimpanzees who are unable to be released back into the wild, providing them with a safe haven in an environment similar to their natural habitat. The chimpanzees are fed mainly porridge, fruits and cabbage, a supplement to the termites and natural vegetation they eat in the forest on the Island.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions have disrupted chimpanzee food and medical supply lines, as well as forced some members of staff to stay home with their families. Food is becoming more scarce and expensive. Between February and June 2020, The Chimpanzee Trust and Sanctuary will have lost over 1,300 bookings. This translates to over $50,000 USD in lost revenue. By the end of April, the Trust will have run out of funds in order to be able to operate, including the ability to feed the chimpanzees.
DONATE: The cost of operating the Trust and Sanctuary for a month is $18,000 USD. This includes 38 staff salaries, insurance, medical supplies and procedures, sanctuary maintenance and field operations for the wild chimpanzee protection and habitat restoration programmes.
The improved status of the mountain gorilla is a result of efforts from many communities, governments and organisations such as Conservation Heritage – Turambe, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Gorilla Doctors. The key to the success of gorilla numbers has been due to factors such as the introduction of park guards, veterinary care, community support projects and regulated tourism.
Established in 2013, Conservation Heritage-Turambe (CHT) is a local organisation based in Musanze District, in the Northern Province of Rwanda. The organisation consists of six Rwandan staff. The Kinyarwanda word “Turambe” means “let us be sustainable” in the English language.
CHT teaches local communities, including schoolchildren, about conservation and health. They discuss issues facing wildlife in Volcanoes National Park, especially mountain gorillas, to alleviate the conflict between wildlife and the community. They teach children about environmental stewardship through art projects that reinforce recycling and reusing materials.
The organisation contributes to local communities. They donate rainwater tanks to reduce the need for humans to enter wildlife habitats in search of water. This also decreases the likelihood of disease transmission between humans and gorillas.
Bamboo and indigenous trees are also planted to prevent soil erosion and provide wildlife habitat. Furthermore, latrines and hand-washing stations are built and waste bins installed to inspire children to be ambassadors in their families by practicing good hygiene and keeping their environment clean.
CHT supports alternative sources of income, thereby reducing the need for taking resources from Volcanoes National Park. For example, the organisation donates sheep to local families. These sheep are used to provide other sources of income, rather than harvesting wood for sale from the forest.
The below papers were referenced during writing this article, which you may find informative:
With thanks to the following contributors for the use of their images:
Dennis Stogsdill, Suzi Eszterhas, Ivana Tackiova, The Chimpanzee Trust and Sanctuary at Ngamba Island, Conservation Heritage - Turambe.