As the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the world, conservationists and wildlife experts are raising concerns that the illness could pose a threat to mammals other than humans.
The endangered African mountain gorilla is feared to be vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The species is able to contract similar respiratory illnesses as humans, and doing so would post great risk to the primates, as even a common cold has been found to prove fatal for them, officials said.
In 2018, the mountain gorilla subspecies was reclassified from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, according to WWF.
There are believed to be just over 1,063 African mountain gorillas remaining in the world. All live in protective areas in African countries.
"The recent gains in mountain gorilla numbers could rapidly reverse if disease is introduced, so protection is key at this critical time," Cath Lawson, Africa conservation manager at the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF), told InsideEdition.com in a statement. "That means that right now, minimizing human-mountain gorilla interaction, and the opportunity for disease transmission, is the priority.”
Parks in Rwanda, Gabon, Congo and Uganda have closed until early June to help keep tourists away from the endangered species. The areas rely mainly on tourism, but due to the coronavirus outbreak, they have been forced to take drastic measures to ensure the safety of species.
"The income from gorilla tourism supports local and national economies in mountain gorilla range states and has helped transform government attitudes towards conservation. In 2008, there were 20,000 visits to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda — 17,000 of these were to see mountain gorillas," WWF said in a statement to InsideEdition.com.
“Given the unknown but potential risks to mountain gorillas, and the fact that only 1,000 of them remain, the decision to stop tourism was a very positive one for conservation," Dr. Tara Stoinski, President/CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of the Gorilla Fund, said to InsideEdition.com. "But it is important to note that this decision also has a significant impact on the parks themselves, as tourism generates very important revenue used to run the parks. And so providing support for the parks to continue essential services is going to be crucial."
Conservationists' concerns surrounding COVID-19's potential threat to the species are not unfounded.
“Scientists in 2003 estimated that a third of the wild gorilla population had been killed by the Ebola virus, and the species remain at risk,” WWF had on their website.
“Additionally, because gorillas share so many traits with humans, they are susceptible to other human diseases. Populations of gorillas that are in frequent contact with humans are particularly vulnerable to deadly respiratory infections. In mountain gorilla range, where gorillas frequently raid farms or come in contact with humans through tourism, they are susceptible to scabies, TB, and a host of other diseases from human transmission.”
During the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Africa, 90% of the gorillas in Gabon were killed. Now, some park officials in the country are placing staff in a 14-day quarantine before entering areas with gorillas.
“Given that gorillas and all great apes share a large percentage of our DNA, they can be highly susceptible to human diseases,” Stoinski said. “Ebola, which actually originates in an animal host, probably bats, has devastated gorilla and chimpanzee populations in western-central Africa, in some places having a greater than 95% mortality rate. Given that we don’t know how great apes would respond to COVID-19, the most conservative assumption is to assume it would affect them in similar ways to us and prepare accordingly.”
Authorities have for years practiced social distancing between gorillas. But human tourists often hope to get as close as possible to see the parks' main attractions.
Tourists wanting to visit gorillas when the parks reopen should consider wearing masks, experts have reportedly said. In some areas of the Congo, park staff and officials historically wear masks as a protective measure.
“With tourism suspended, only essential staff are in the forest monitoring the mountain gorillas. But yes, both are critically important, as are taking other measures such as limiting time with the animals, handwashing, and not allowing anyone into the park if they show signs of illness,” Stoinski said.
Gorillas are not the only animals who could be at risk to contracting COVID-19. Chimpanzees, which, like the mountain gorillas, share a 98.8% DNA likeness to humans, are found in the same regions of Africa as gorillas and could also be prone.
“Ebola outbreaks have killed tens of thousands of great apes,” the WWF said.