Could COVID-19 signal the end for our closest relatives?

26 April 2020 Ape Alliance News

Everyone can appreciate the profound effect that the current COVID-19 pandemic has had on human lives worldwide, whether that be working from home, food shortages, or the loss of loved ones. However, there is little doubt that, as a species, we will survive this pandemic. The futures of many species of apes are less certain.

Whilst there are (thankfully) no reports of apes with COVID-19 at the time of writing, they can contract other coronaviruses, and scientists believe it as a case of when, rather than if, the infection will reach apes. Our close evolutionary relationship to apes means they share many genes and consequently cellular structures, including the ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) by which the virus attaches to respiratory cells.

There are also numerous cases of other respiratory diseases reported in the field – Dr Vernon Reynolds reports the death of four senior male chimpanzees over the last year in the Budongo forest in Uganda. The death of individuals has knock-on impacts on the social structure of troops, the profound effects of which is illustrated by gorilla groups. Should a silverback die, his offspring may be killed by remaining males in order to bring the females of the troop into oestrous sooner. The social structure of apes also contributes to the spread of the infection; aside from the obvious transmission between regularly interacting individuals of the same group, should a dominant male die, the females of the troop may move to a troop in another area, transmitting the infection to this troop should they carry the infection. However, it is not only social apes at risk of coronavirus – Orangutans are considered at high risk given the ever-increasing overlap between their habitats and human development.

Tourists watch a wild orangutan on a feeding platform. Photography by Ian Redmond OBE. 

Aside from the probable death of apes due to contracting COVID-19, the indirect impacts of the pandemic are already likely costing ape lives. It is imperative that ape tourism is suspended for the foreseeable future to prevent transmission from humans to apes, however many conservation organisations are struggling to continue their vital work without this source of income.

Furthermore, tourism provides a source of income and employment to communities within or near to ape habitat. Without this incentive to protect the apes, and with food shortages due to lack of imported food and loss of income, there is a very tangible risk of increased poaching. This risk is exacerbated by reduced numbers of rangers in some protected areas due to lack of funding and health concerns.

Conservation organisations are being forced to diversity their means of income. Conservation Through Public Health (which works towards the conservation of mountain gorillas through improving the lives of people) exemplifies imaginative ways of raising funds with their social enterprise ‘Gorilla Conservation Coffee’. Funding from Zoos is likely to decline as they are also suffering financial impacts of the pandemic. Ape conservationist Ian Redmond promotes the use of virtual reality tourism as a proxy for travel to the habitat of apes.

Girl uses Ape Alliance VR headset at event in Bristol. Could VR connect people to nature during lockdown?  

There are hopes that this pandemic will serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world to close wildlife markets (note that there is a distinction between these and wet markets, which include non-animal products), many of which are already illegal, but legislation is poorly enforced. However, scepticism remains as to how much this alone can really achieve in preventing further outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

There is potential for zoonotic diseases to pass from animals to humans wherever human behaviour results in a change in animal behaviour. For instance, the 1998-1999 Nipah virus outbreak in Indonesia occurred as a result of human contact with secretions/tissue of infected pigs. These pigs became infected from eating fruit in orchards that had been fed on by bats. These bats were forced to flee to the orchards for food after their forest habitats were set alight by humans. It seems inevitable that for as long as we continue to impinge on wildlife habitats - whether that be through deforestation, mining or commercial hunting - zoonotic diseases will continue to be a threat. In the words of Dr James Desmond of Liberia Chimpanzee rescue, “If we don’t change our behaviour, this is going to keep happening”.

If you are interested in this subject and would like to learn more, I would recommend watching the Ape Alliance panel discussion (posted on Facebook), which goes into more depth with experts in the field and gives information on how you can help ape conservation.

Article by Ape Alliance volunteer Eleanor Harrison. 

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