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National parks in Africa shutter over COVID-19 threat to great apes

  • Wildlife authorities in some parts of Africa have effectively locked down parks that are home to gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, amid concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could make the jump to great apes.
  • Humans and great apes share more than 95% of the same genetic material, and are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases, ranging from respiratory ailments to Ebola.
  • Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo shut its doors to tourists this week, while in Rwanda all parks hosting gorillas and chimpanzees were also shut; Uganda is considering doing the same, with its parks de facto closed because of a drop in tourist arrivals.
  • Even if the apes avoid COVID-19, the loss of tourism revenue for the parks and potential loss of income for people who work to protect these species could cause enduring damage to conservation efforts, experts say.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo shut its doors to tourists this week in an attempt to protect its great apes from possibly being infected by the novel coronavirus. The park, which hosts one of the last remaining populations of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), will remain closed until June 1.

The specter of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, looms large over Africa, with the number of confirmed infections among people crossing 2,000 as of March 25. Humans and great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans — share more than 95% of the same DNA, and are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases. And while no COVID-19 infections have been recorded among great apes, experts warn the risk is very real.

“It is not yet known if great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2,” the IUCN said in a recent statement referring to the coronavirus by its formal name. “However, there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. At this point, it is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 infection.”

The IUCN has called for precautions on the part of site managers, researchers and tourism operators to ensure that the threatened populations of these species are not wiped out by an epidemic that has already claimed more than 22,000 human lives as of March 26.

“Luckily we don’t have any reports on the virus in chimps, gorilla or bonobo so far,” said Fabian Leendertz, a primate infectious disease ecologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. But the possibility can’t be ignored because the consequences of a novel contagious disease could be disastrous, especially for populations that are limited to small areas.

Research by Leendertz and his colleagues has shown that even mild human pathogens can trigger severe infections in apes. “We have described the transmission of human respiratory viruses and also bacteria over many years in chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas,” he said. In 2009, a female gorilla and a 3-day-old infant died of the human metapneumovirus, which usually causes mild respiratory infections in humans, during an outbreak in Rwanda that affected several mountain gorillas.

“It happens regularly and can only be prevented if the projects respect and implement the IUCN guidelines,” Leendertz said.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have jumped species from bats to humans, and spreads from human to human. Scientists fear that it could similarly spread from humans to apes. For these primates, who won’t be practicing social distancing or hoarding sanitizer, human actions offer the only protection. All great ape species are already endangered, and gorillas and orangutans are critically endangered, only one step away from becoming extinct in the wild.

National parks prepare to protect gorillas from COVID-19

Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest, hosts three kinds of great apes: the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), and eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii). A third of the world’s entire mountain gorilla population resides in the Virunga massif ecosystem, which comprises Virunga National Park in the DRC, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.

This subspecies of the eastern gorilla was teetering on the brink of extinction in the 1970s and is only just beginning to recover thanks to years of targeted conservation actions. However, in general, gorilla populations, both the eastern gorilla (G. beringei) and western gorilla (G. gorilla), found in West Africa, remain critically endangered.

As of March 26, the DRC had recorded 48 human cases of COVID-19, Rwanda 41, and Uganda, 14. Authorities in all three countries are acting to prevent any transmission to their great apes.

Rwanda announced the indefinite closure of tourism and research activities in three of its national parks that host gorillas and chimpanzees — Nyungwe, Volcanoes and Gishwati-Mukura — effective March 21. Akagera National Park, which does not have gorillas or chimpanzees, is still open. Researchers with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda are taking extra precautions in their interactions with the apes. Uganda is considering the closure of its national parks as tourist numbers drop off.

“Even for Uganda which has not officially closed its parks they are technically closed,” said Andrew Seguya, executive secretary of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. “The western countries have closed flights. There were cancellations and closures. People cannot travel from the west, that is where tourists mostly come from.”

A silverback gorilla with an infant male gorilla in Gabon. Image by Rhett A. Butler

For all three countries, tourism is a significant source of revenue, and the great apes are a huge attraction. A majority of the gorillas in the region, more than 60%, are accustomed to humans, according to the charity Gorilla Doctors. There is a steady flow of tourists and researchers, as well as the constant presence of park personnel. The parks themselves are surrounded by densely populated areas, which means the apes are frequently exposed and at risk of acquiring a human infection.

Through the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, set up jointly by the three countries to manage the Virunga landscape, a contingency plan for COVID-19 is in the works, Seguya said. He added the plan would be released in a few days.

The group also has an Ebola plan in place, because the disease also endangers great apes and outbreaks have flared up frequently. Ebola is believed to have killed 5,500  gorillas at a single site in the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo between 2001 and 2005. The DRC reported its 10th and biggest Ebola outbreak in 40 years in 2018. It is ongoing but on the wane.

Across the Indian Ocean, in Southeast Asia, concerns about risks to orangutans (Pongo spp.) have prompted similar actions. All three orangutan species — Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli — are already critically endangered because of rapid habitat loss, hunting, the illegal pet trade, and infrastructure development in Indonesia, which is home to almost all of the wild population of the apes.

“We do not have any knowledge of respiratory illness that strikes orangutans other than Acute Respiratory Infection, which they usually suffer during the fire season due to the thick smoke,” a spokesperson for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said. However, to avoid any risk of the spread of COVID-19, the NGO has shut down most of its facilities, where it cares for a combined 650 animals with the help of 400 personnel. (One of the orangutans in its care, Cinta, became an internet sensation thanks to her handwashing skills.)

A baby orangutan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Image by Rhett A. Butler

On the island nation of Madagascar, which hosts more than 100 species of an endemic primate, the lemur, conservationists are also calling attention to the threat. The country reported its first human COVID-19 cases on March 20; by March 26, the count had risen to 23. Lemurs are not as closely related to humans as apes are, but are severely threatened; more than three-quarters of lemur species are endangered. “The current COVID-19 pandemic should be considered a potential threat to the health of wild lemurs,” said Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a Malagasy primatologist who is also the president-elect of the International Primatological Society. He added that given the “little infrastructure that the park managers have here we do not know how we can ensure that the rules are reinforced in remote areas.”

The IUCN has called for two precautions to be strictly followed by anyone who works with and around great apes: One is to maintain a distance of at least 7 meters (23 feet), and ideally 10 meters (33 feet). The second is that no one who is clinically ill should visit the apes. One of the reasons the novel coronavirus has been particularly devastating in human communities is that even people who show no symptoms can spread it. Keeping this in mind, people who have had contact with ill patients in the preceding two weeks are also being told to stay away from the apes.

The full list of IUCN best practices for disease control among great apes can be found here.

It’s not hard to put the guidelines in place, according to Leendertz, the infectious disease ecologist, but it’s also crucial that ongoing projects are not dropped and staff continue to be paid. “The number of staff going to the forest to look after the great apes must be reduced to the minimum,” he said. “The main problem will arise for tourist projects which rely on the revenues of tourism to pay the people. The international conservation community must find a way to help the project filling the financial gap.”

Ultimately, even if the virus does not strike great ape populations, the curbs on tourism could prove detrimental to conservation efforts. Great apes are a great draw. Revenue from tourism is used to help local communities living in the vicinity of parks and also in anti-poaching activities. In Rwanda, a gorilla tracking permit can cost more than $1,000, and in Uganda, somewhere around $600.

“The closure will certainly have dire effects on Virunga’s finances with around 40% of park revenue disappearing overnight,” the national park authority said in a statement to Mongabay. “The closure of tourism will have a major financial impact on the region. The local economy and population, being direct beneficiaries of the tourism industry, will also likely face major economic strain in the coming weeks.”

In the meantime, the gorilla populations in the Virunga landscape are being closely monitored for any signs of trouble. “The public should know that all measures are being taken to protect the gorillas, we continue to monitor them,” said Seguya, the Ugandan wildlife official. “We ask them to be patient with us; it is for the gorillas and people. When the time is right, we will open the parks.”

(Banner Image: A silverback gorilla in Gabon. Image by Rhett A. Butler)

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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