Uganda ramps up safety as gorillas get tested for coronavirus exposure

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Published MARCH 20 – MARCH 26, 2021

Mountain gorillas of the Mishaya group found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Tropi-cal Rainforest, and Central African Hills, Uganda. Picture: AFP

Uganda has started testing its mountain gorilla population for Covid- 19 and will isolate those that may have been ex-posed to and picked it from infected humans. Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a not-for-profit organisation, in  partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Virus Research Institute, has started sample collection for  testing Sars-CoV-2 in mountain gorillas  at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  In January, eight captive gorillas were  believed to have the virus after three of  them were diagnosed positive for coronavirus through faecal sample analysis  at the Zoo Safari Park in San Diego, US.

Experts said they are “collecting non-invasive mountain gorilla faecal samples to preserve them for testing.

Swab sample challenge

“This is the same method used by San Diego Zoo to test their lowland gorillas,” said Richard Bagyenyi, CTPH programme coordinator.

After the San Diego primates tested positive, the CTPH founder and chief executive Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka sent out funding appeals to help improve gorilla health by scaling up Covid-19, testing in order to mitigate its impact.

But testing mountain gorillas presents a challenge, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says. Although tourists often come to within a few feet of the primates and take selfies, a burly silverback will not accept a foreign substance shoved in its nose to get a mucus sample.

“The ideal way to test for Covid-19 is putting a nasopharyngeal swab up the nose [not an option on gorillas,” she said.

CTPH researchers, who have monitored the mountain gorillas since 2003, took the next ideal option — to search the abandoned nests where a particular gorilla group slept the previous night, and collect faecal samples left there, for testing and analysis.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to 43 per cent of the world’s living 1,063 free ranging mountain gorillas.

For endangered and critically endangered gorilla species which live in close-knit family groups, the risks of Covid-19 infection are enormous, with the potential to completely wipe out family groups or sub-species, because they can-not social distance, experts says.

Ahead of World Wildlife Day this month, CTPH was awarded a €100,000 ($119,308) rapid action grant for one year, to focus on protection of the endangered mountain gorilla by conducting thorough frequent Covid-19 tests on both humans and gorillas, a statement from Save Our Species said.

The project would also train staff on Covid-19 prevention and gorilla health monitoring, as well as help local communities generate alternative sources of income by training farmers on how to grow and sell organic coffee, to reduce their dependence on gorilla habitat.

Save Our Species, a programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, awarded grants worth €368,939 ($440,177) to five organisations in Uganda to alleviate the impact of the pandemic in protected areas by addressing biodiversity and conservation needs.

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