Coronavirus: Endangered mountain gorillas at risk as African national parks rush to close borders
Gorillas are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases that affect humans and respiratory infections are the most common, causing up to 20% of sudden deaths in gorillas
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Africa’s oldest national park has decided to shut its door to visitors till June 1. The reason: advice from scientific experts suggest that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus, says the Virunga National Park in a statement.
“As a result of the rapidly unfolding situation regarding the global spread of COVID-19, the Virunga National Park has taken the difficult decision to temporarily close mountain gorilla tourism as of Monday, March 23. In accordance, no new bookings for mountain gorilla treks will be accepted before Monday, June 1,” says the statement.
It adds, “The Park’s temporary closure of mountain gorilla tourism is being undertaken as a precautionary measure and is in line with the World Health Organization's recommendation to restrict movement and limit social contact. As such, we must remain steadfast in safeguarding our population of this endangered species. Our tourism team will be in touch with those individuals who have booked a trip during the period indicated (March 23-June 1). We will continue to provide updates on this situation as and when we have any further information.”
Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Situated in the center of the Albertine Rift, between Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga's 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) stretches from the Virunga Massif in the south, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north. Information on the Park’s website states that the world’s entire population of critically endangered mountain gorillas live only in the Virunga Massif and Bwindi, which spans part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. Virunga is home to around a third of these gorillas.
Mountain gorillas are at risk of disease transmission
Gorillas are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases that affect humans and respiratory infections are the most common, causing up to 20% of sudden deaths in gorillas.
“An outbreak of the respiratory disease human metapneumovirus (HMPV) was conclusively linked to the death of a female mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park that ultimately died of bacterial pneumonia, followed by the death of her infant likely due to neglect,” says a report.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), gorillas that come into contact with humans can be vulnerable to human diseases, which gorillas experience in more severe forms. Mountain gorillas can even die from the common cold, say experts.
Accordingly, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has developed rules to protect the health of the gorillas, limiting each habituated gorilla group to a single hour-long visit per day by a group of no more than eight tourists. Current rules emphasize that humans must maintain a seven-meter (or greater) distance from gorillas at all times, which in the absence of wind is the minimum safe distance to avoid a sneezed droplet carrying infectious particles. However, many studies have documented that not all tour groups respect the seven-meter rule.
In a report published in February 2020, Frontiers in Public Health, for example, Ohio University researchers documented tourist-gorilla spacing during 53 gorilla treks during a recent tourism high season in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The analysis shows that though 96% of pre-trek briefings conducted by park rangers emphasized the need to maintain greater than seven-meter human-gorilla spacing, the seven-meter distance rule was violated in over 98% (52 out of 53) of the tours examined in the study. Using observational data collected at two-minute intervals during gorilla-viewing tourism encounters, the researchers documented that nearly 70% of all observations took place at a distance less than or equal to seven meters.
Why is it important to protect them?
Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are an endangered species of great ape found only in eastern Africa. The world population of mountain gorillas is currently estimated to be around 1,000 individuals.
“Despite years of civil unrest in the region where mountain gorillas live, conservation efforts have found success. Findings show populations in the Virunga Massif have grown to 604 individuals, up from 480 individuals in 2010. This puts the total global wild gorilla population over 1,000 individuals,” says the WWF.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, told The Associated Press (AP) that “every possible effort must be made” to protect mountain gorillas because so few are left in the wild.
“We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases. If anyone has a cold or flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas. With coronavirus having such a long time of no symptoms in some cases, it means that we could actually put those gorillas at risk,” she told AP.
Rwanda is also shutting down tourism and research activities as a temporary measure in three national parks that are home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.
“Uganda has not announced a shutdown of gorilla tourism, although tourist traffic from Europe and elsewhere have dwindled. A spokesman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Bashir Hangi, said the decision on whether to shut down gorilla tourism is now academic as there is almost no business amid the outbreak,” reports AP.
Globally, over 14,687 people have died from the COVID-19 virus, and more than 338,724 cases have been reported so far.