Covid-19 has resulted in the tragic loss of life of over 1.6 million people since it first began spreading across the globe, becoming the leading cause of death in the United States, topping heart disease and cancer. As the pandemic spread throughout the human population, it began appearing in other species too, from tigers and minks to pet dogs and cats. But what threat does this novel pathogen pose to some of our most vulnerable species, including those closely related to humans? Vox asked veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka – who has been working to keep gorillas alive through the Covid-19 pandemic – precisely this.
It’s estimated that there are just 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. As a species that shares 98.4 percent of its genetic DNA with Homo sapiens (that’s us), conservation workers who work closely with these animals take precautions to prevent spreading airborne viruses such as the common cold or coronavirus. Just 460 of these wild gorillas are found in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda, an exceptionally dense and high-altitude park and a fine place for isolating vulnerable animals.
So far there have been no reports of a respiratory illness among the park’s residents, but the possibility is a great concern for Kalema-Zikusoka as gorilla social groups are a perfect set up for devastating disease spread. These animals exist in a tight-knit group, meaning if just one animal fell ill the rest would swiftly follow suit. What severity of the disease the gorillas would experience isn’t yet known, but it would be preferable to never find out.
“This virus is a threat to the gorillas,” Kalema-Zikusoka told Vox. “Tourism is a good thing, but it has to be done in a responsible way so that it doesn’t end up wiping out the very species. It’s a very delicate balance.”
Kalema-Zikusoka founded the nonprofit Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), which has built a tourism economy to raise funds for the work they do whilst maintaining practices that are safe and sustainable for both the gorillas and the people who live near them. CTPH has been working with the local community and park staff to protect the gorilla population – which saw an increased risk of poaching during pandemic lockdowns that emptied the park of tourists – while also putting in place protocols as to how to manage the situation should a member of staff fall ill.
“The problem with [the gorillas] is that they don’t know how to social distance,” said Kalema-Zikusoka. “They are in a harem with a lead silverback and many females and babies and a few other adult males. And they’re always grooming each other, they’re always moving together as a group. So, if one of them gets Covid-19, it’s very easy for the rest of them to get it because they don’t know how to social distance."
A study in August identified gorillas and other primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans as the most vulnerable to SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
“In 1996... one of the first outbreaks that I had to handle was when the gorillas walked outside the park to eat people’s banana plants and they found dirty clothing and scarecrows and got scabies. It caused death in an infant," Kalema-Zikusokasaid. "So, yeah, we’re worried about those kinds of diseases. Influenza viruses are a very big worry for us, other diseases that cause the common cold, and other viral respiratory diseases.”