The threat of Coronavirus to mountain gorillas

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In the wake of Coronavirus spreading across the world, conservationists are warning that Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas in could be at risk from the virus. Gorillas, which share about 98 percent of the human DNA, are apes which are prone to respiratory illnesses and common colds just like humans. Any close contact between people who may be infected with the virus and the gorillas can easily lead to the spread of the virus to the animals.

Following the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide, countries with mountain gorillas including Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have come up with some measures to protect the gorillas against this pandemic.

In DR Congo, Virunga National Park, the country’s home of mountain gorillas has been closed to visitors. Rwanda has also suspended all research activities and entrance to three national parks including Volcanoes National Park which protects mountain gorillas. Uganda has not yet closed its parks but all visitors from abroad have been stopped from coming into the country. The staffs who work in wildlife reserves like rangers, trackers and vets have also been encouraged to practice preventive measures that have been put in place.

In addition to the measures from the authorities, other conservation organizations like the Dian Fossey Fund which is in charge of protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda and DR Congo have also erected measures to prevent Coronavirus from spreading to the gorillas. These measures include limiting the number of hours their field staff have been spending with the gorillas to monitor their health and general well-being. The field staffs have also been told to maintain a distance of 100 meters away from the animals immediately after checking on them. The field staff is also subjected to health checks every day before they go to see the animals and those found with any symptoms are immediately isolated. Other workers whose work can be done from home have been advised to do to limit contact among individuals and the animals too.

Counting losses?

Gorilla trekking has been the largest foreign exchange earner among all tourist activities in all the 3 countries. Gorillas safaris have been taking place throughout the year in all the 3 countries with each trekker paying between $450 and $1,500 to see the gorillas depending on the country where trekking is done. Rwanda has the most expensive gorilla permit at $1,500 per person, Uganda’s permit is sold at $600 per person while DR Congo’s permit is the cheapest at $450 per person. A pause in the activity will lead to the tourism industry in all the 3 countries losing huge amounts of foreign exchange revenue. This also applies to all other tourism stakeholders including tour agents who have been arranging gorilla safaris for their clients. They are now not getting business since bookings are not coming and therefore face a risk of being kicked out of business. Other stakeholders facing the same challenges include hotels and lodges who have been providing accommodation services to the clients who come to trek gorillas and see other animals. Others include tour guides, and those who work in the parks who are all out of business now.

The status of mountain gorillas

Unlike other gorilla subspecies, the global population of mountain gorillas has been steadily increasing and currently they are estimated to be around 1,063 individuals in the wild compared to about 250 individuals that existed in the 1970s. It is this steady increase in their population that prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to remove mountain gorillas from the Red List of critically endangered species in 2018. About half of the global population of mountain gorillas lives in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which has got about 17 habituated groups of gorillas trekked by tourists who visit the park. Volcanoes national Park in Rwanda has 10 habituated gorilla groups, DR Congo’s Virunga National Park has 8 habituated gorilla families while Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda has one recorded habituated gorilla family. On average, each habituated gorilla family has about 15 individuals though some families may have as many as over 35 members. A typical gorilla family is led by one strong and dominant male known as a ‘silverback’ with several females and their young ones and other young males.

How is gorilla trekking organized?

Gorilla trekking is a highly regulated tourist activity given that mountain gorillas are endangered animals and therefore their conservation is highly emphasized. Each habituated gorilla group is trekked once a day by a group of 8 visitors who spend only hour in their presence. While in the presence of gorillas, trekkers are supposed to maintain a distance of at least 7 meters between them and the animals to avoid transmission of any infections to them. Other measures trekkers are supposed to observe include not littering around the gorilla habitat, observing silence and avoiding direct eye-contact with the gorillas.