20 Dec Christmas appeal: Gorillas face new danger from man in coronavirus
An invisible danger is stalking the forest home of mountain gorillas but their human guardians are fighting hard to protect them.
Although conflict and hunting almost wiped out the animals from Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, coronavirus is now regarded as the single biggest threat to the gorillas’ survival.
Conservationists have helped numbers bounce back to more than 1,000. But if Covid-19 spills over from humans to their nearest animal relatives, the result would be catastrophic.
Experts already know from bitter experience that, in many cases, what kills humans can also kill gorillas.
The proximity of that risk is nowhere more evident than in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to nearly half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. Children who pick tea in the plantations that buffer the primates from their nearest human neighbours, have to shout to be heard over the grunts of the apes in the trees.
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a wildlife vet who has researched mountain gorillas for decades and works to help the two populations live side by side in peace. This involves preventing diseases from transferring between them.
The organisation she set up in 2003, Conservation Through Public Health, receives support from Tusk, a British charity backed by this year’s Times and Sunday Times Christmas Appeal.
Tusk funds about 60 innovative projects in 20 African countries, which protect endangered animals by helping their human neighbours to survive and flourish without killing wild creatures or destroying their habitats.
Tusk’s work has become particularly crucial during the pandemic. Dr Kalema-Zikusoka had long dreaded the advent of coronavirus in Africa.
Although mortality rates on the continent have been far lower than in Europe and America, perhaps as a result of its young population, infection rates remain high. She fears the gorillas would not fare as well.
“If one were to contract Covid-19, we would expect them to be as seriously ill as a human, if not worse,” she said. Studies have shown that primates have the same protein receptors that the virus attaches to as humans. Since gorillas share more than 98 per cent of human DNA, they would probably show similar symptoms. Like us, the apes’ social behaviour puts them in peril.
“Numbers could crash fast,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka said. She explained that if a dominant male were to die of Covid-19, females in the harem would disperse to other groups, spreading the virus further. Cases of human diseases transmitted to great apes are well documented. Human respiratory viruses are the leading cause of death among chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Dr Kalema-Zikusoka saw the impact of zoonotic transmission, illness passed between humans and animals, when a scabies outbreak swept through a gorilla family in the 1990s. She traced the outbreak to infected clothes on a scarecrow. Bwindi is bordered by intensive cultivation.
“Gorillas are naturally curious about life outside their forest. We cannot hope to conserve gorillas without seeking to improve the health of their nearest humans at the same time,” she told The Times as she handed out masks and hand sanitiser to tea pickers working metres from a gorilla family.
A baby boom among Bwindi’s gorilla families has lifted the spirits of Dr Kalema-Zikusoka and her colleagues, although they are concerned at a spike in poaching for bushmeat since travel restrictions shattered the local economy.
All donations to Tusk will be doubled up to a total of £150,000 by the philanthropic Nick Maughan Foundation.
To donate to the Times and Sunday Times Christmas Appeal visit thetimes.co.uk/christmasappeal or call 0151 284 2336
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