COVID 19: From Humans to Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas
By: Yusra Adil
Besides human conflict, illegal hunting, and habitat destruction, Uganda’s mountain gorillas have another threat to face, COVID-19. Conservationists at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park worry that their effort of 4 decades, in an attempt to protect and build the endangered population, will be worthless. The risk of transmission of the illness from humans to gorillas is a serious concern, especially in places such as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda where they encounter tourists, villagers and conservationists.
These mountain gorillas are extremely endangered, almost half the world's mountain gorilla population, around 450 of them, are only found in two areas. They are mostly located in the Bwindi and the Virunga mountain range, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Some of Uganda's mountain gorillas have been attached to the presence of humans so tourists and guides are able to have a close interaction with the gorillas to track and observe them.
Veterinarian Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka worries about the devastation COVID-19 could infect the gorillas. COVID-19 has spread quite fast in Uganda similar to the rest of the world. Uganda has had more than 26,300 cases of the coronavirus that causes the disease and 220 deaths.
Dr. Gladys claims, "We share over 98 per cent genetic material and can easily make each other sick.” "If COVID-19 was to get into the gorillas, of course, they can't socially distance, the whole group would be wiped out."
Gorillas are particularly prone to respiratory infections. The transmission of human diseases in gorillas is not new. Gorillas have caught cases of shingles, human metapneumovirus, and Ebola. Another point to include is that COVID-19 has been found in dogs, cats, lions, tigers and minks, and the virus that causes the diseases is thought to have originated in bats.
Uganda's borders have recently reopened to tourists after being shut down on March 23rd because of the pandemic. In a normal year, the park sees an average of 20,000 visitors. Tourism is necessary for survival of the Uganda villages, as the communities get money off of tourism, and with COVID-19 tourism and earning has significantly decreased. "Tourism is a necessary evil, but it needs to be done in a very responsible way," said Kalema-Zikusoka. According to the Vet, it is because of the gorillas, that tourism is very popular and citizens are able to have jobs.
Tourists pay $700 USD per person for a tracking permit. The trek to find the gorillas can take anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours and the terrain varies. Once a gorilla family is located, visits are limited to one hour.
The COVID-19 shutdown has underlined just how important tourism is for the protection of wildlife.
Testing COVID-19 in gorillas has also posed a challenge.
"The ideal way to test for COVID-19 is, you know, putting a nasopharyngeal swab up your nose, but that's not an option," said Kalema-Zikusoka.
However, there is an alternative, every evening, gorillas build nests on the ground to sleep in. They rarely sleep in the same nest twice so once a nest is abandoned, researchers are able to approach it and collect dung samples left nearby.
These samples provide all kinds of insight into the health of the gorilla and whether there has been any exposure to COVID-19 between the gorillas. The gorillas are continuously at risk, and this endangered species is prone as they are not able to social distance. It is important to international communities to support the cause and donate to gorillas.
- A new threat for Uganda's gorillas | CBC News
- Gorilla conservation’s latest threat: COVID-19 from tourists (pri.org) ● Conservation in crisis: why Covid-19 could push mountain gorillas back to the brink | Conservation | The Guardian