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"We are very worried about Covid-19 spreading to great apes" - IUCN Geneva

Congo's Virunga National Park, home to about a third of the world's mountain gorillas, has barred visitors. (Credit: Keystone)

The pandemic not only hit human beings but other species in many ways. Among them, great apes, who share about 98% of our DNA and obviously cannot practice social distancing. So far, there has been no cases of Covid-19 among non-human primates but conservationists in Geneva had to forecast worst case scenarios to protect already endangered species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based in Gland, has published Best Practice Guidelines to avoid catastrophic outbreaks in such animals.

Prone to respiratory illnesses. It is known that great apes are susceptible to human pathogens and it that they can develop respiratory illnesses. Genetically close to human, they are particularly susceptible to this new coronavirus. The enzyme receptor ACE2 that Covid-19 uses to lock onto human cells is identical in great apes, according to a recent study. Dr. Fabian Leendertz, Epidemiology of Highly Pathogenic Microorganisms at the Robert Koch-Institute, was one of the many specialists involved in writing the guidelines for IUCN:

“We provided many studies and evidence on transmission of human respiratory viruses to wild chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos. We are very worried about the Covid-19 spreading to great apes.”

Covid-19 transmission.. The risk is hard to quantify. Although there are no cases, conservationists had to take preventive safety measures in regions where apes have their habitat - tropical West to East Africa for great apes and orangutans in Asia - especially on research projects and tourism where people get in close contact with them. Leendertz:

“Many countries they are in have weak health infrastructure and there is very little diagnostic being done. We don’t really know how far the virus has spread already, if it’s already there or if it will arrive soon and if the virus could be severe. We are hoping that it will just be a mild one.”

Previous outbreaks. Primatologists have identified other viruses spill over from human to great apes in the past and when an outbreak of respiratory disease hits a community they can lose up to 25% of their members. In 2013, an outbreak of rhinovirus C -common cold virus in humans - sickened 40 and killed five in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Ebola could be responsible for the death of 30% of the wild gorillas of Lowland Goriaal over the past 30 years. A report from Frontiers in Public Health showed that respiratory viruses were responsible for 20% of sudden deaths in mountain gorillas (only 1036 mountain gorillas are left). Doris Calegari, Species conservation expert for WWF Switzerland:

“It is very likely that apes can be infected like people. If great apes are not kept safe from humans right now and in future, we fear this could happen with the corona virus too.”

Communities at risk. The wild among the wild who run away from humans because they are not used to their presence and solitary apes like orangutans which live in trees are less prone to contagion.

At special risk are the habituated great ape groups as they can come specifically close to tourist groups and which are not easy to treat like Gorilla in the midst of Diane Fossey or chimps in Gombe of Jane Goodall. Leendertz:

“Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos live in communities. When outbreaks hit a community, it can lose up to a quarter of their members. It happened.”

Apes in captivity in zoological gardens, sanctuary or orphanages where people abandon them could also catch the virus, but they would be easier to treat.

Protection vs contagion.  Although the virus is the more acute threat at the moment, logging and habitat loss in general as well as poaching are the main threats in the long run. So, if apes are more at risk to catch human viruses by being in close contact with them, the benefits of protection through tourism and research is higher than the damage. Leendertz:

“Tourism and research are very important to protect the great apes and the disease is a negative side effect. The best example is mountain gorillas saved from extinction because they become a source of income for the government and the local population.”

Now that apes can obviously not do social distancing and are uneasy to treat, it’s up to game guards, park wardens, scientists and locals to follow IUCN guidelines and gear up. All gorilla watching tours have also stopped and parks are closed for public. Calegari:

“It is essential that strict rules are set and followed: health checks, awareness raising, good disinfection plans, sanitation stations put up, masks and access denied to anyone with signs of a disease.”

Side effects. When tourism stopped, income stopped too. National parks lack the funds to continue their basic work and pay salaries and local people need to find other ways to cover the basic needs of everyday life. There are alarming signs of increase poaching in some areas. Calegari:

“The affected countries are poor ones, that have no means to step in and bridge the gaps during the time of lockdown for their people. Therefore, illegal activities are increasing. Poachers have taken advantage of the corona crisis and the close down or reduction of patrolling in some parks and countries. Poaching by locals could be a major threat but even more dangerous is the professional poaching.”

Next step. To see how the coronavirus has spread in those regions to restart tourism with hygiene measures in place to protect the great apes and the rangers who go in the forest.

“Once there is a vaccine, it is very important to vaccinate people around the great apes habitat as it happens they also have very little access to healthcare. And if there is enough vaccine available I would also recommend to vaccinate habituated apes.”

With a blowpipe, why not?

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