21 Jan Covid is threatening Africa’s gorilla trekking industry – but responsible tourism could be the cure
We now know that gorillas can catch Covid, but conservationists believe the pandemic could offer a silver lining
Primatologists have always thought it safe to assume gorillas could catch SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – and their suspicion was finally confirmed this month.
When two western lowland gorillas at San Diego Zoo Safari Park began coughing, the zoo tested the troop’s faecal samples and found evidence of the virus. It’s thought they caught it from an asymptomatic staff member who later tested positive. In a statement, the zoo’s executive director, Lisa Peterson, said: “Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well.”
Though it isn’t a surprise that gorillas, sharing 98.4 per cent of our DNA, can catch the virus, the confirmation of infection is concerning.
“[Since the news], rules are being much more strictly enforced and we are monitoring the gorillas even more closely,” said Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Ugandan non-profit Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).
Rwanda and Uganda have the largest gorilla trekking industries in the world. Tourists pay US$1,500 in Rwanda and US$700 in Uganda to spend an hour with a gorilla group. That revenue, and the protection afforded to the parks as a result, is a major reason the mountain gorilla population has grown to just over 1,000 in recent years.
For many who live around parks such as Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, tourism is the sole source of income. In its absence, people have moved to poaching bushmeat to survive. Last year, a silverback gorilla named Rafiki was killed by a group hunting duiker and bush pigs in Bwindi, after he allegedly attacked them.
Since the Ugandan industry restarted in September, Kalema-Zikusoka tells me poaching has reduced.
“Currently I believe that the negative effects of banning trekking outweigh the risk of infecting gorillas, but this could change any time and needs to be continuously evaluated,” she says.
So how do you balance these inter-reliant necessities: tourism and gorilla health?
Prior to 2020, regulations in Rwanda and Uganda were pretty lax. Tourists were not required to wear a face mask, unlike in DRC, Republic of Congo and other gorilla trekking destinations. There are multiple videos of gorillas touching tourists, whereas other parks have been stricter in maintaining distance: in the Republic of Congo, on the edge of Odzala-Kokoua National Park, primatologist Dr Magdalena Bermejo has always kept 12-14 metres from the western lowland gorillas she studies (Bermejo learnt the hard way about disease risk: in the early 2000s, an estimated 5,000 gorillas died from Ebola and she lost 95 per cent of her research individuals.)
Kalema-Zikusoka has been a proponent of stricter health measures for many years, as even our common cold can be passed to gorillas. CTPH started Covid training for Bwindi park staff in March 2020 with a follow-up in November to enforce a new 10-metre distance rule (up from seven). However, there’s still a risk that the gorillas are so used to approaching people, the extra distance won’t make a difference.
In both Uganda and Rwanda, wearing a face covering around the gorillas is finally mandatory and hikers’ shoes are sanitised before entering the forest. Both countries require proof of a negative PCR test on arrival from overseas.
With the Uganda Wildlife Authority, CTPH has started testing gorilla faecal samples for SARS-CoV-2. If the virus is found, Kalema-Zikusoka says the positive individual’s group will be immediately quarantined from others, enforced by rangers who will monitor them around the clock.
Ultimately, says Kalema-Zikusoka, “the balance of these two issues – health and economics – in the immediate and long term can be achieved through a strict culture of responsible tourism.” Provided it’s maintained, better regulation of the gorilla trekking industry may be at least one silver lining of the pandemic.