Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to about a third of the world’s mountain gorillas, is barring visitors until 1 June, citing “advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus”.
Some 23,335 people have died from the coronavirus and more than half a million cases are now confirmed around the world, according to the UN.
Neighbouring Rwanda also is temporarily shutting down tourism and research activities in three national parks that are home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.
Around 1,000 mountain gorillas live in protected areas in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, for whom tourism is an important source of revenue. Restrictive measures have been put in place following the coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, Thomas R Gillespie and Fabian H Leendertz of the Great Ape Health consortium, warned of the danger that Covid-19 held in killing off our “closest living relatives”.
“It is unknown whether the morbidity and mortality associated with SARS-CoV-2 in humans are similar in apes. However, transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes can lead to moderate-to-severe outcomes,” they wrote.
They recommended that tourism be suspended and field research reduced.
Virunga National Park’s decision has been welcomed by conservationists in the region.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, told the Associated Press that “every possible effort must be made” to protect mountain gorillas because so few are left in the wild.
“We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases,” she said. “If anyone has a cold or a flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas.
“With coronavirus having such a long time of no symptoms in some cases, it means that we could actually put those gorillas at risk.”
Even existing measures may not be enough to protect them.
According to Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with Conservation Through Public Health, a study published this year by her group and Ohio University showed that measures in place to protect gorillas from humans are not effective in practice.
Uganda has not announced a shutdown of gorilla tourism, although tourist traffic from Europe and elsewhere has dwindled.
The region’s mountain gorilla population dropped sharply in the past century because of poaching, illness and human encroachment. Mountain gorillas have been listed as critically endangered or endangered since 1996, although their numbers are now said to be growing as a result of conservation efforts.
In Rwanda, where tourism is the top foreign exchange earner, the government has prioritised the protection of gorillas, even launching a naming ceremony for baby primates.
Some worry the loss of tourist revenue during the coronavirus pandemic could further expose the primates to poachers. Virunga, established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has long been vulnerable in a volatile part of eastern Congo.
“I think this is going to have a huge impact on their sustainability,” Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist, said of Virunga. “I call on all donors and governments that support these national parks in Africa to make it easy for the parks that need to shut down to do so and survive.”
Poachers could do even more damage to gorillas if they think the anti-poaching efforts have been reduced, she said.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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