A string of national parks in Africa are temporarily closing as a precautionary measure to protect their gorillas and other non-human primates from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world, released a statement last week announcing the closure in the wake of the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak. Following advice from scientists, they say “primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus.”
The National Agency for National Parks in Gabon, whose extensive park system is home to thousands of Western lowland gorillas, also took similar action earlier this month, saying “respiratory viruses that affect humans are easily transmitted to great apes.”
Citing similar worries, Rwanda is also shutting down tourism and ending research activities in three national parks that are home to gorillas and chimpanzees, according to the Associated Press.
There have not yet been any known cases of a wild gorilla, nor any other non-human great ape, contracting an infection from the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2). However, it’s well-established that gorillas and other members of our great ape family can “catch a cold” and other respiratory illnesses from humans.
A 2008 study found the “first direct evidence of virus transmission from humans to wild apes” and concluded that disease transmission could be aiding the rapid decline of great apes. In this case, the infection was not caused by a coronavirus, but two common human paramyxoviruses.
Furthermore, scientists have actively infected monkeys with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) in a bid to gain a better understanding of the virus and its infection. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Wuhan Institute of Virology infected rhesus macaques with SAR-CoV-2 and found they develop a “mild respiratory disease,” reporting in a yet-to-be peer-reviewed paper (PDF). Although they did not develop fevers or any serious symptoms, their lungs showed signs of pneumonia, comparable to some COVID-19 infections in humans.
Based on the limited scientific evidence on the matter, the move to shut down national parks that are home to great apes is a precautionary measure. However, it's simply not worth the risk, especially when it concerns rare and endangered species.
Mountain gorillas, one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla, are incredibly vulnerable as it stands. There are thought to be less than 1,000 individuals left in the wild, and they can only be found in two isolated populations: one in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of Uganda and the other in the Virunga Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Already threatened by poaching, destruction of habitat, and pollution, the last thing these guys need is a nasty new viral infection.