How safe are mountain gorillas from Coronavirus?

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Experts have warned that great apes including mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains face a lethal threat from Coronavirus which is currently killing thousands of people across the world.

Mountain gorillas which are already endangered animals are highly susceptible to human disease and there is growing fear that coronavirus pandemic can wipe out their population if necessary measures are not taken to protect them. Gorillas share about 98% of human DNA which makes them highly susceptible to catching respiratory diseases from humans.

Wildlife experts fear that coronavirus which has been so fatal to humans can be devastating if passed on to the great apes which in the past have been affected by even pathogens producing mild symptoms in humans.

So far, no gorilla or any other great ape has been reported to have contracted coronavirus and therefore its true impact in these animals is not yet known. Researchers advise that since gorillas and other apes are already at the risk of extinction due to poaching and habitat destruction, closing national and other reserves must be taken serious.

all national parks including those with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda have already been closed to tourists and researchers. However, the challenge is that leaving these animals without human protection exposes them to the risk of poaching.

The lockdowns which restricted international travel that were adopted by governments across the world in order to control the spread of coronavirus came as good news to the conservationists. There was fear that if tourists who may be already infected with coronavirus could easily pass it to the animals since they may not even exhibit any symptoms initially.

Research has proved that there is a direct transmission of viruses from humans to wild apes with evidence of common human respiratory viruses causing deaths among great apes especially those that get in contact with people. In 2016, wild chimpanzees in Ivory Coast’s Tai National Park were reported to have contracted a human coronavirus.

Mountain gorillas living in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo are the only great apes increasing in number with about 1,063 of them living in the wild. Basing on their rise in number, mountain gorillas were moved from critically endangered to endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, this success in their conservation can easily be reversed if the apes are not safeguarded from coronavirus.

The IUCN advises that the distance normally observed between humans and great apes should increase from 7 meters to 10 meters to eliminate any chances of virus transmission. The body also adds that nobody with coronavirus related symptoms or who has been in contact with anybody ill in the previous 2 weeks should be allowed to visit the animals.

Other measures taken to safeguard gorillas from coronavirus

In addition to the worldwide lockdowns imposed, the local tourism agencies also responded to the outbreak of coronavirus virus by closing all wildlife reserves to tourists. The staff working within the parks like the rangers, veterinary doctors, and trackers are subjected to coronavirus control measures before they go to meet the animals. These include testing their body temperature, wearing face masks and gloves. The field staff must also maintain a relative distance between them and the animals while the time they spend before gorillas has also been reduced.

When will gorilla safaris resume?

Currently it’s not yet known when gorilla safaris and other tourist activities will be opened up again. With all the travel restrictions in place worldwide and the ongoing closure of national parks to tourists, it becomes hard to predict when everything will clear up. But we remain optimistic that governments will do everything possible to open up for tour activities as soon as it is deemed safe to do so in order to save their declining economies that have been severely affected by the spread of coronavirus.

However, as far as wildlife conservation is concerned, protection of animals especially endangered species like mountain gorillas from coronavirus remains the priority in this period. This will ensure that at any point safaris are opened, wildlife lovers will be able to find their favorite species safe and kicking to enjoy their experiences in the jungle once again.

Click here for more information about gorilla safaris in Rwanda and Uganda or to book your gorilla permit.