COVID-19 becomes a risk to mountain gorillas
As the novel coronavirus infects more people around the world, conservationists are warning of the risk to another vulnerable species: Africa’s endangered mountain gorilla. Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to about a third of the world’s mountain gorillas, is banning visitors until June 1, citing “advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus.”
Neighboring Rwanda is also temporarily shutting down tourism and research activities in three national parks home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.
Mountain gorillas are prone to some respiratory illnesses that afflict humans. A common cold can kill a gorilla, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, one reason why tourists tracking gorillas are not normally permitted to get too close.
Around 1,000 mountain gorillas live in protected areas in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, for which tourism is an important source of revenue, but COVID-19 has led to restrictive measures.
Virunga National Park’s decision was welcomed by conservationists in the region.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, said 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,” she said. “If anyone has a cold or the flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas. With coronavirus having such a long incubation period, it means we could actually put those gorillas at risk.”
Even existing measures may not be enough to protect them.
According to Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with Conservation Through Public Health, a study published this year by her group and Ohio University showed measures in place to protect gorillas from humans are not effective in practice.
The rule on keeping a safe distance from gorillas was broken almost every time a group of tourists visited, she said.
“What the research found is that the 7-meter rule was broken almost all the time, like 98 percent of the time,” she said. “But what’s interesting is 60 percent of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40 percent of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”