Coronavirus Threat to Endangered Great Apes: The Great Ape Health Consortium Warn
Gorillas, Chimpanzees and other Great Apes under threat by COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
Alert: Coronavirus Threat Great Apes – The Novel Coronavirus has hit humankind so hard and now primate scientists’ fear that the virus could pose a mortal threat to our closest living relatives including Gorillas and Chimpanzees. [Coronavirus (COVID-19)Threat Great Apes]
Already endangered Great apes are threatened by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) that has already affected over a million people in the globe.
There are four types of Great apes alive today and these are Gorillas, bonobos and Chimpanzees all in Africa as well as the Orangutans in SouthEast Asia.
Humans are closely related to great apes, sharing a common ancestor several million years ago. Humans share about 97% -99% DNA with Great Apes. Conservation Experts from the Great Ape Health Consortium released a letter in Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00859-y) explaining the risk of Coronavirus on great apes.
25 Disease researchers, conservationists and other experts note that primates are susceptible to human respiratory diseases, sometimes fatally. Viruses, some of which have been traced to humans and cause just mild symptoms in people, have sickened and killed apes in several African countries. [Coronavirus (COVID-19)Threat Great Apes]
“We’re most concerned because we’ve seen these major mortality events linked to respiratory diseases from humans that cause minor illness in humans,” Thomas Gillespie, a disease ecologist at Emory University and a lead author of the letter, said in an interview. “Apes are endangered primarily because of habitat loss and poaching, and more and more we’re seeing that disease is becoming an important co-factor in their endangerment.”
They stated that, as leading experts in the conservation and health of these animals they urge governments, conservation practitioners, researchers, tourism professionals and funding agencies to reduce the risk of introducing the virus into these endangered apes.
It is unknown for now whether the morbidity and mortality associated with the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in humans are similar in apes. However, transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes can lead to moderate-to-severe outcomes.
Conservation Experts from the Great Ape Health Consortium also recommended that great-ape tourism be suspended and field research reduced, subject to risk assessments to maximize conservation outcomes. However, they also warn that poaching could rise with fewer people in the vicinity.
Gorilla tourism has been suspended in Africa as well as other sanctuaries that host great apes such as orangutans have closed to the public. Dr Kirsten Gilardi chief veterinary officer for Gorilla Doctors, an organization that provides veterinary care to Gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo stated that;
“We don’t know if it’s infected Mountain Gorillas; we have not seen any evidence of that” she also added that “But because Mountain Gorillas are susceptible to human pathogens, we know that they can develop respiratory illness.”
All the three countries-Uganda, Rwanda and Congo that are home to Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) have already registered several cases of COVID-19 patients.
Past research has shown that Chimps can contract the common cold virus and the Ebola virus is thought to have killed thousands of Chimpanzees and Gorillas in Africa.
Measures set to avoid spread of Coronavirus to Great Apes
Though no great apes have tested positive for Coronavirus yet, there are several measures being taken by conservationists. Some of these apes depend on the conservation efforts to keep them safe, healthy and protected. Here are some of the precautions that are being undertaken;
- Social Distancing
Vets and rangers caring for the Wild Gorillas are continuing with their useful works but while practicing social distancing. The social distancing in the wild is from humans and the great apes.
Before the outbreak of the Coronavirus, all trekkers were advised to keep a 7 meters distance from the gorillas. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) set new guidance and calls for a minimum distance of 10 meters from Great Apes.
It is also advised that visits from humans be reduced to the minimum to ensure safety and health of the great apes.
- Ill persons shouldn’t come close to apes
No person who is ill or who has been in contact with a sick person in the preceding 14 Days should be allowed near the great apes.
Anyone who has been ill should stay away from great ape enclosures for at least 14 Days after they have recovered.
- Testing staff and letting those who feel ill stay home
Some zoos are testing their staff for Coronavirus and advising any who feel ill to stay at home. Staff have been told to check their temperature regularly, wear face masks and carry out deep cleaning of zoo enclosures. Some keepers have chosen to live on site and away from their families.
- Stop all close up activities with Great apes
Most zoos and conservation areas have practices that allow visitors close contact with great apes. These include behind the scenes tours where people get involved in activities like feeding the apes, being zoo keepers for a day, preparing food and helping with training. These activities should be stopped for now and may have to change in the future.
The six species of great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos, Western Lowland Gorillas, Eastern Lowland Gorillas, Bornean Orangutans and Sumatran Orangutans. However, with the fact that a tiger already tested positive for Coronavirus in the Bronx zoo means that all wildlife should be protected.
For now all National Parks and zoos are closed, however, when the pandemic slows down and they’re open, there will be need for changes that limit contact and educate the public about zoonotic diseases and their threat to great apes.
The COVID-19 pandemic could be the start of a new era for how humans interact with their closest relatives. However, during this time we can learn a great deal about the great apes and interact with them while maintaining a safe distance.