As if Coronavirus had not brought enough problems with it, scientists are now warning it poses a critical danger to the earth’s great ape populations with many saying it could easily lead to a pandemic that wipes out populations of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
Sharing about 98% of human DNA, our closest living relatives are already known to be susceptible to catching respiratory diseases from people and even pathogens producing mild symptoms in humans have been lethal to great apes in the past – such as when wild chimpanzees in the Taï National Park in Ivory Coast were reported to have caught a much more benign form of Coronavirus in 2016. Covid-19 being fatal to some humans means it’s highly likely to prove devastating to great apes.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a critical situation for humans, our health and our economies,” said Thomas Gillespie, at Emory University, US, and a lead author of a letter from 25 experts published in the journal Nature. “It’s also a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction.”
The good news thus far is that the great apes already practice self-isolation simply by living in extremely remote areas that are largely inaccessible to most humans. Studies have obviously not yet been conducted, but to date there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 infecting these apes and conservationists are looking to interventions to keep it that way.
“People who are younger, who may be less at risk for severe illness from Covid-19, are the ones who are more likely to be hiking into the national parks of Africa and Asia to see great apes in the wild,” Gillespie said. “It would be extremely difficult to monitor whether they were infected with Covid-19 since they may not have obvious symptoms.”
As a result, the latest guidance from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommends that the normal distance between people and great apes on tour groups, or even documentary shoots should increase from 7m to 10m. Additionally, it advises that those who are ill, have been ill or even have been in contact with anybody ill in the previous 14 days be banned from visiting great apes.
The African nation of Gabon has only had three cases of Coronavirus and one death at the time of publishing, but had already taken huge steps to protect its unique Gorilla population. Fears linger in the country after an Ebola epidemic in 1995 wiped out more than 90 percent of the gorillas in the verdant north and as such the nation has banned tourists entirely from viewing the gorillas.
“We have decided to close tourist activities for viewing the great apes in our parks to avoid any risk of transmissions between humans and the animals,” said Christian Tchemambela of the country’s National Agency for National Parks (ANPN).
Further staff working in Gabon’s National Parks have all been placed in mandatory quarantine for a period of 14 days, before they will be allowed access to Park facilities again.
In a world where 60% of the more than 500 primate species worldwide are threatened with extinction, and 75% have declining populations a pandemic of this nature could easily result in the final extinction of some primates.