“Almost every respiratory virus we carry will also make it to the great apes,” says Dr. Fabian Leendertz, a primate infectious disease ecologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa faces another possible outbreak, one which has the potential to wipe out an entire species. “The main thing is to avoid [an outbreak] happening.”
The consensus is almost universal amongst those studying primates. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a statement referring to the coronavirus by its scientific name, giving official guidelines to the same effect: “It is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 infection.” The IUCN’s recommendations stress stringent precautions on the part of national parks, researchers, and tourists to help ensure that the critically endangered populations of primates across the continent are not driven to extinction by a global pandemic that has already taken more than 366,000 human lives as of May 29.
There are currently only around 1,063 mountain gorillas left in the wild. With the average daily death rate from Covid-19 in the USA, which is teetering around 1,000, it’s easy to correlate how an outbreak could drive the species to extinction.
Following the IUCN guidelines, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced this week that it was temporarily closing its doors to the public in an effort to protect their critically endangered community of great apes. Their statement emphasized their dedication to keep their steadfast approach in safeguarding their population of the world’s primates.
Anchored in the center of the Albertine Rift, nestled between Uganda and Rwanda, and located on the eastern periphery of the DRC, Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its 3,000 square miles are home to active volcanos, the third-highest mountain chain on the continent, Lake Edward, and vast expanses of grassland as well as dense jungle, making it Africa’s oldest and most biologically diverse protected area.
The vibrant green fertile slopes of Virunga’s Mount Mikeno, an inactive volcano, is home to three kinds of great apes: the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla, and eastern chimpanzee. A third of the world’s entire wild gorilla population resides in the Virunga Massif ecosystem, on the flanks of the volcano. Virunga’s population of eastern gorillas walked the tightrope of extinction in the 1970s; their population has only marginally begun to recover recently, thanks to decades of intensive conservation programs. However, in general, gorilla populations found in West Africa, including both the eastern and western gorilla, remain critically endangered.
Between 2001 and 2005, an Ebola outbreak is believed to have killed over 5,500 gorillas, nearly 25% of the world’s entire wild gorilla population, at a singular site.
Leendertz’s lab conducts its research on zoonotic microorganisms in tropical wildlife at labs in Berlin and sub-Saharan Africa. The great apes are our closest physiological relatives; we share 95% of our DNA with them, and with much of the focus of the emergence on Covid-19 being on animal-to-human transmissions, primatologists are looking in the other direction. Although there aren’t any reports on Covid-19 in chimpanzees, gorillas, or bonobos so far, there are devastating examples of what an outbreak can do to great ape populations in the region.
Between 2001 and 2005, an Ebola outbreak is believed to have killed over 5,500 gorillas, nearly 25% of the world’s entire wild gorilla population, at a singular site in the Lossi Sanctuary in the neighboring Republic of Congo. Since 2000, Leendertz and his team have focused their research in West Africa and the Congo area on any disease in wild great apes, including Ebola. “Whenever a chimpanzee or gorilla or bonobo is showing signs of disease, then we investigate what caused that disease,” he says. But what if they die? “With high-safety measures, we do the full necropsies and analysis.” Over the last 20 years, his team has always found out what killed a great ape or made it sick.
‘It’s a little bit like [when] the Europeans went to the Americas: They brought their diseases and caused lots of death. It was a type of biological warfare. We don’t want to do that to the great apes, we want to protect them.’
Though the Ebola virus as a pathogen is far deadlier than Covid-19, Leendertz explained that this coronavirus has a bigger potential to spread quickly throughout great ape communities. In every host it infects, the Ebola virus causes severe symptoms that show the host is visibly sick. The mortality rate of those infected with the Ebola virus is as high as 90%, but its severe symptoms and high mortality rate are what make Ebola easy to trace and isolate. On the other hand, many people infected with Covid-19 show few symptoms or are completely asymptomatic. They are able to carry on with their daily lives, while the virus invisibly moves from one population to the next. Most recently, a critically endangered Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for the coronavirus from an infected, asymptomatic zookeeper.
Can wild great apes living in their natural habitat really be compared to tigers at a zoo? The vast majority of great apes in the wild are not habituated to humans. Poachers, hunters of bushmeat, and even researchers have to hack their way through dense jungle vegetation to find great ape communities deep in the heart of the Congo. They are extremely shy, Leendertz emphatically points out. The only subspecies of great apes that have the majority of its population habituated to humans are the mountain gorillas in the Virunga. Habituation is essential to Virunga’s efforts in mountain gorilla conservation. It allows for detailed research done by primatologists, to help understand mountain gorilla behaviour as well as allow veterinary teams to intervene if the gorillas are injured or showing signs of severe illness.
For great apes who won’t be social distancing or panic buying toilet paper at Costco, human actions offer the only protection from viruses.
Though this habituation aided in conservation efforts and helped the mountain gorilla population increase, it also harbors the big risk of the introduction of human pathogens into the same population. “It’s a little bit like the situation where the Europeans went to the Americas, yes? They brought their childhood diseases and caused lots of deaths and diseases. It was like a type of biological warfare,” says Leendertz. “We don’t want to do that to the great apes, we want to protect them.”
For great apes who won’t be social distancing or panic buying toilet paper at Costco, human actions offer the only protection from viruses. Where great apes are habituated to humans, researchers can attempt to treat them as much as they can treat wildlife. However, the majority of great apes are not habituated to humans, making it very difficult to effectively treat them if they become seriously ill. “They’re still wild animals, you can’t put them into a hospital, you can’t give them intensive care,” Leendertz says.
In late 2016, a team of researchers reported the transmission of a different human coronavirus (HCoV) OC43 to wild chimpanzees living in the Taï National Park, in Côte d’Ivoire. Even though that particular community of chimpanzees at Taï were habituated to researchers since the early 1980s, treating them was another story. Daily monitoring identified sporadic coughing and sneezing among the chimpanzees in the community. Fecal samples were collected by researchers as part of their continuous non-invasive health monitoring program and shipped to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. The lab in Berlin identified another coronavirus HCoV-OC43 in the fecal samples. Given the procedures put in place by in Taï in 2008, requiring a mandatory five-day quarantining and health screening of individuals intending to approach the community, researchers had the strongest possible genetic evidence of human-to-chimpanzee transmission. The team used blowpipes and darts to administer long-acting antibiotics from several feet away.
Viral deaths are not the decimating factor of the Covid-19 crisis; even if the virus does not make its way into great ape populations during this pandemic, the global shutdown of numerous countries and restrictions on travel could also prove detrimental to great ape conservation efforts. Virunga’s mountain gorilla treks are led by the park’s rangers and local pisteurs; wildlife enthusiasts head out on an intensive five-hour round trip to observe habituated mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The money made from the treks goes directly back into funding conservation efforts.
Beyond Virunga, national parks across the African continent are cautiously taking steps to ensure their conservation work is not ravaged by the virus. In Rwanda, national parks home to gorillas and chimpanzees were also closed, while Ugandan Great Ape parks are also planning to close. “The tourism industry funds the majority of the protected areas where we work,” says Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation in a video address for the foundation, “to the tune of $40 billion, continental-wide, every year.” Budgeted revenue from the wildlife tourism industry — the majority of which is allocated to wildlife protection and protected areas and national parks — is down … way down. “And it hasn’t reached the bottom yet. Wildlife and those dedicated to protecting it will pay a heavy price,” Sebunya continues.
The shutdown of national parks and the financial stress of diminished funds from tourism have already proved to be deadly. On Friday, April 24, Virunga National park tragically lost 12 of the park’s rangers and a driver in a deadly attack by militia. Virunga’s initial investigations indicate that the rangers were attacked on the way back to the park’s headquarters. On their way, they encountered a civilian vehicle that had been attacked and, subsequently, came under a ferociously violent ambush by militiamen, resulting in one of the highest losses of human life at the park since an attack that killed 6 rangers in 2018.
Militia groups who have been fighting the Congolese government and one another have long been active within the park’s boundaries. According to the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), the militia groups fund their activities through a mixture of poaching, hunting for bushmeat, illegal logging of hardwood, and illegal fishing. “We can confirm that the perpetrators were the armed group FDLR-FOCA,” said the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), which oversees the park, referring to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and its armed wing, the Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FOCA).
The fall in tourism has meant that poachers feel emboldened to target endangered animals in tourist hotspots, which would normally draw too much attention to operate in.
The death toll from April’s attack adds to the 175 park rangers who have been slain in the past two decades defending wildlife in the park, as well as researchers and tourists who come to see and study the animals.
The carnage of park attacks is not just limited to Virunga. The halt in people traveling is invariably a significant detriment. Since southern African countries have entered national lockdowns to flatten the Covid-19 curve, poachers have killed six endangered rhinos in Botswana. The fall in tourism has meant that poachers feel emboldened to target endangered animals in tourist hotspots, which would normally draw too much attention to operate in. On top of the six rhinos killed in Botswana, South Africa has had nine rhino deaths since the country was put in lockdown because of Covid-19.
“The lack of funds means parks cannot do frequent patrols as they need fuel for their cars and they need food for rangers to go on patrol,” said Sebunya in a statement to Reuters. Parks receive little government funding and, on a whole, are largely dependent on tourism revenue to run their operations and care for the animals and plants that thrive there.
Conservationists fear that the global economic hit will cause desperate local communities — many of which earn a livelihood directly or indirectly from tourism — to be exploited by criminal networks to poach endangered animals or cut down trees for the charcoal trade, just to be able to survive. “People are not going to sit home and starve. They will rely on what natural resources are next to them. If it’s a forest, they will cut the trees. If it’s a park, they will hunt the animals. If it’s a river, they will over-fish,” said Sebunya.
For the great apes in Virunga, health monitoring is key. With the park closed, they are being closely monitored as researchers vigilantly look out for signs of trouble. “Obviously, the priority is to look at our species first and see that we get control over this pandemic, right? This has to come first,” says Fabian Leendertz. In his line of work, a pandemic capable of decimating entire species is nothing new. His team members aren’t starting from scratch; Covid-19 will now just be added to their long-term health monitoring of the Congos’ critically endangered great apes.
How does he think the pandemic will affect the primates? “I cannot foresee the future, unfortunately; otherwise, I would be a rich, famous person,” he laughs. He reiterates his first point that preventative measures are key: “The main thing is to avoid an outbreak happening.”