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Captive gorillas caught COVID-19. Here's how to protect endangered species

Image:  Joshua J. Cotten/Unsplash

Marie Quinney
Lead, Impact Measurement and Management - Nature Action Agenda, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Gorillas in the San Diego Zoo have tested positive for coronavirus, the first known cases in great apes.
  • We don't fully understand how COVID-19 affects different species.
  • To protect endangered animals, we should apply caution and suspend human contact with this wildlife.

As COVID-19 sweeps across the world, it is not only human populations that are under threat. It has long been suspected that the SARS-CoV2 virus that is responsible for the current pandemic could have the potential to transmit to our closest living relatives, great apes. Great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, which share roughly 98% of their DNA with humans.

Recent reports state that gorillas in San Diego Zoo have tested positive for the virus, compounding fears that the pandemic could have devastating consequences for wildlife and, particularly, endangered species. These are the first known cases of transmission to great apes, and the seventh animal species to contract COVID-19 after tigers, lions, snow leopards, mink, dogs and cats.

Eight gorillas have now been exposed to the virus and are experiencing symptoms such as coughing. Particularly troubling is the fact that, according to a 2018 study, respiratory illnesses are already a significant cause of death in ape species. These gorillas are expected to make a full recovery, but this is an unfortunate reminder that COVID-19 may have repercussions on wild animals populations who both cannot socially isolate and are not being treated by veterinarians.

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Early on in the pandemic, leading biologists and conservationists warned the international community to protect great apes from the virus. The Union for Nature’s Primate Specialist Group/Section on Great Apes and the Wildlife Health Specialist Group published a joint statement urging that “great ape visitations by humans are reduced to the minimum needed to ensure the safety and health monitoring for the great apes”. They emphasised that the IUCN’s best-practice guidelines for health monitoring and disease control should be applied to ensure that this virus does not have even more dire consequences than we are already witnessing. As a result, many national parks and ecotourism sites have been closed throughout Africa.

Preliminary research into the risk to wildlife shows that about 40% of species susceptible to COVID-19 are classified as threatened by the IUCN. Great ape populations are already threatened by ecosystem destruction, poaching and other diseases. A recent study has found that around 60% of primate species are threatened with extinction and between 2001-2015, 160 million hectares of forest were lost due to human demand for commodities such as fossil fuels and timber. In addition, Ebola led to mortality rates of up to 95% in gorillas, with many populations needing over a century to recover. On the other hand, our proximity to great ape populations may also cause humans to contract other diseases from the apes themselves.

While the known cases of COVID-19 in animals have been in captivity and all have, thus far, recovered or are in a stable condition, it is still unknown how the COVID-19 virus manifests in all species. It may, therefore, be prudent to apply caution and suspend human contact with endangered wildlife. Nature tourism in ape and other habitats should be reduced or suspended entirely, with care to protect livelihoods that depend on such tourism. Great ape tourism attracts much interest and generates crucial income for many local communities and governments. The pandemic has put the delicate balance between human activity and nature in the spotlight.

There are currently no animal vaccines for COVID-19 but Russian scientists have started developing one for pets and mink, after millions of mink had to be culled in Denmark due to contracting COVID-19. While not as urgent as vaccinating people, protecting animals from the pandemic can help in ensuring the pandemic does not worsen and that the virus itself does not mutate by being passed to new species.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

In addition to the direct threat of the virus to animal populations, management strategies, such as widespread lockdowns, have had unintended consequences on nature. Fewer boots on the ground have led to a reduction in rangers and conservation workers to protect species. Illegal fishing, poaching and the destruction of habitats through deforestation and forest fires have all been on the rise due to approaches intended to protect human health.

All is not doom and gloom when it comes to the relationship between people and nature, however. For example, in-tact forests can provide habitats for wildlife, support the water system and prevent flooding of urban settlements. Such nature-based solutions can be much more cost-effective in the long-run than expensive technological interventions, and release funds which could help communities dependent on nature transition to more sustainable livelihoods. This approach requires the careful management of natural ecosystems but can bring about benefits for all.

Whether the coronavirus itself originated in animals is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, its onslaught is a stark reminder of our delicate relationship with the natural world. Pandemics such as COVID-19 highlight that living in close quarters to nature can bring about both positive and negative impacts for human and other species. If we are going to prevent this pandemic from spreading into an ecological disaster as well, we must address its connection to wildlife. Measures must be put in place to safeguard natural ecosystems and ensure that conservation efforts receive the attention and funding they need.

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