Orangutans at risk from COVID-19

The future of already endangered great apes in Sumatra is under threat if the virus spreads to the surviving orangutans, warns Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme director Ian Singleton

Tuesday 21 July 2020 14:19

Only around 13,000 or so Sumatran orangutans and less than 800 Tapanuli remain in the wild.

These critically endangered great apes are on the edge of extinction due to habitat loss, hunting, and the pet trade. But now face yet another threat: the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes CoVID-19 in humans.

Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans and suffer from many of the same diseases.

This means they are likely vulnerable to infection during the current pandemic and studies have confirmed that orangutans and all other great apes exhibit the same 12 key amino acids as the ACE2 enzyme that affects the susceptibility of humans to CoVID-19 infection.

We are extremely concerned that the virus could easily jump to orangutans. If the virus were to infect even just one orangutan, it could spread unchecked and wipe out an entire population.

We founded the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme in 2001 with the aim of saving captive and wild orangutans and their rainforest habitat in Sumatra, which includes the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and the recently described Tapanuli (Pongo tapanuliensis) orangutan species.

We now have to work on the assumption that it is not a question of ‘if’ orangutans will become infected, but ‘when’. We have to do our utmost to protect the less than 14,000 orangutans that remain in the wild on Sumatra, the 75 individuals in our care at our rescue centre, and the more than 300 that we have reintroduced to the wild.

When a species’ wild population is small or confined to a very restricted area, a single devastating catastrophe such as a disease outbreak or a volcanic eruption has the potential to drive it to extinction.

Introducing the species into a different area, in order to create a new wild population, has the potential to reduce this risk of extinction.

Our reintroduction programme is gradually creating two entirely new wild orangutan populations in Sumatra, at a distance from the existing wild populations. These act as a ‘safety net’ or ‘back up’, should a catastrophe befall the original wild populations.

We never dreamed we could be facing such a situation as soon as 2020 with the CoVID-19 pandemic.

We were planning to re-survey the distributions and densities of wild populations, 10 years after we completed the first population-wide survey of orangutans in Sumatra.

However, these plans have been put on hold due to the virus. Research activities at our field stations have stopped, and students have gone home. All of our field sites have been in total lockdown since early March.

To minimise the risks, we have implemented new procedures and protocols at all of our working sites.

We have procured new equipment, including expensive and hard to source personal protection equipment (PPE) to minimise the potential for transmission between orangutans and staff at the rescue and reintroduction centres.

We have built new biosafety quarantine facilities to ensure any orangutans newly arriving can be completely isolated from those already with us, until we can determine if they are carrying the virus or not.

We have never turned away an orangutan that needed our help and we are doing everything in our power to make sure we never do.

To cover these necessary yet unexpected CoVID-19 pandemic protocols, we recently launched an online crowdfunding campaign. We are grateful to all those who have supported us thus far, and are delighted to have received the attention of environmental activist and actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited us in 2016 when filming “Before the Flood” and last week shared our campaign on his social media pages.

Of course, we recognise that we are not the only ones suffering financially due to the CoVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism revenues that support great ape conservation around the world have been severely impacted by ongoing travel restrictions and park closures.

From satellite imagery, we are also seeing an increase in deforestation throughout the tropics, including in Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutan habitat.

This increase is suspected to be the result of pandemic-related economic hardship, as people search for new sources of income, including illegal logging and poaching, while protection and law enforcement efforts are also compromised.

Much has been made of the clear links between deforestation, poaching and the wildlife trade, and zoonotic disease transmission through increased contact between humans and wildlife.

If we want to prevent the next pandemic from occurring, it is vital that CoVID-19 recovery efforts include financial investment in long-term protection for tropical rainforests, biodiversity, and indigenous communities. Donate to support HERE.

Dr Ian Singleton is a former zookeeper from the UK. He studied the ranging behaviour of wild Sumatran orangutans for his PhD in Sumatra during the late 90's and since 2001 has been Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme for the Swiss based PanEco Foundation.

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