Much has been made of Africa’s gorilla reserves being closed to protect the primates from catching Covid-19. Is this necessary? Can zoonotic diseases transfer from humans to mammals? We asked expert Ian Redmond OBE of the Ape Alliance
very person on the planet has been affected by the global pandemic of Covid-19, whether they have caught the virus or not. The measures taken to control its spread have grounded airlines, cancelled public events and closed national parks—as well as confining a significant proportion of the human population to their homes (if they are lucky enough to have one).
The full impact on wildlife has yet to be calculated, but much attention has been focussed on the risk of SARS Cov-2—the virus that causes CoronaVirus Disease-19—infecting gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa and orangutans in SE Asia.
The great apes are genetically so close to us that pathogens can easily jump species, which is why the rules for visiting them have always been designed to minimise that risk: one-hour visits, small parties of tourists, minimum 7m distance and, in many sites, obligatory wearing of surgical masks to prevent droplet infection. What makes this new virus so dangerous, though, is its ability to survive for up to 72 hours on hard surfaces.
Imagine this scenario: you are tracking mountain gorillas through the bamboo zone of the Virunga Volcanoes or Bwindi; you feel fine but, unknown to you, the person next to you on the flight or bus that brought you there was shedding the virus, so you are now infected but not showing symptoms. As you breathe heavily hiking up steep slopes at unfamiliar altitudes, trailing behind you is a viral plume of tiny droplets potentially infecting others in your group, or any gorillas down-wind, even if you keep to the regulation 7m distance. But that is not the only threat. As you steady yourself on a bamboo clump, you are unwittingly depositing viruses on a smooth hard surface that in the next day or two could be climbed up by a young gorilla…
We do not know the mortality rate of Covid-19 in gorillas or other apes, and hopefully we won’t find out. With only a little over 1000 mountain gorillas in the world, every individual matters, and all the non-human apes are either endangered or critically endangered. This is why ape tourism was suspended in all sites in Africa and Asia in March 2020, following guidance from the IUCN, which recommended “great ape visitations by humans are reduced to the minimum needed to ensure the safety and health monitoring for the great apes.”
Thankfully there hasn’t been a case reported of an ape testing positive for Covid-19, but, worryingly, the Bronx Zoo has reported that tigers have caught the disease. A study of the mechanism of infection concluded that African and Asian primates were susceptible to this new coronavirus.
This raises the prospect of not only apes but monkeys, baboons and macaques being at risk (think of all the primates that raid rubbish tips that might contain virus-laden packaging). Even if the virus doesn’t kill them, a sick primate is easy prey for a predator, and we do not know whether leopards or lions or scavengers such as hyaenas or jackals can catch the disease in the way that tigers evidently can. Again, even if the virus doesn’t kill a predator, it might make them so sick they cannot hunt, so they die anyway.
The measures taken to prevent or slow the spread in human populations also pose a fundamental threat to conservation, simply because much conservation work is funded by tourism—which for the moment is grounded—and fund-raising events for conservation charities, which are seeing a huge drop in income.
Moreover, the disruption to food distribution means that many communities in and around wildlife habitats are facing real hardship, and so may be tempted to hunt for bushmeat—even though it is the handling and slaughtering of wild animals that has been the route of transmission of numerous zoonotic diseases in recent decades.
Hundreds of NGOs have written to the World Health Organisation calling for it to back the closing of wildlife markets where viruses and other pathogens have the opportunity to jump species*.
2020 was supposed to be the year that the world agreed on a new deal for nature—what in UN-speak is called the ‘post-2020 biodiversity framework’. Instead, the UN meetings at which climate and biodiversity talks were to take place have been postponed. Naturally, everyone who is in lockdown or suffering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is hoping things will quickly get back to ‘normal’, but perhaps—given that nature has forced humanity to hit a global pause button—we should use this time for reflection and redefine ‘normal’ for a truly sustainable future.
Ian Redmond OBE is a field biologist and conservationist who has been working with great apes in Africa and Asia for over thirty years. He is the founder of the Ape Alliance, which aims to encourage conservation organisations to work together. To support their work, you can make a donation here.
*There are a number of petitions calling for the closure of commercial wildlife markets, e.g. https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/petitions/1211/shut-down-wildlife-markets-now#letter
To lift people’s spirits and remind them of nature, even if they can’t get out into it at this time, Ian Redmond is posting daily #BrightenYourDay videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown.