Stepping up measures to protect gorillas from Covid-19 and people from future pandemics

By Terence Fuh Neba, Head of Research and Monitoring and Manager of the WWF Primate Habituation Program in Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas, Central African Republic

Terence Fuh Neba, head of the WWF gorilla habituation programme in CAR fully masked up during data collection in 2017 © Janika Wendefeuer/WWF

When Covid-19 hit, we were fully prepared — already conscious of the risk of transmitting human pathogens to gorillas. Our western lowland gorilla habituation programme in the Central African Republic has always had strict health measures in place adhering to the IUCN best practice guidelines for great ape tourism.

Great apes are our closest relatives and they, just like us, can contract highly infectious diseases.

The Ebola outbreak nearly 20 years ago had a devastating impact on both humans and great apes with some areas witnessing a decline of up to 95% of gorillas. With SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19), which is a highly contagious disease, we have been deeply concerned about the risk of the habituated gorillas getting infected and the risk of it spreading rapidly. Gorillas living in captivity have tested positive for covid-19, the most recent case being 13 gorillas in the Atlanta Zoo barely two weeks ago. Earlier this year, San Diego Zoo reported the first known outbreak of Covid among its resident primate population. Thankfully, we are yet to record any reports of infections within any wild populations yet. With both species, the eastern gorillas and the western gorillas already threatened with extinction, this could spell doom for our great ape cousins.

This is why we have in place stringent health and safety measures for staff, for communities and the great apes we all work with. These measures include disinfecting shoes, washing and sanitizing hands as well as wearing masks near the gorillas. People who exhibit symptoms of infections are not allowed to visit the gorillas and standard vaccinations, including for smallpox and polio, are mandatory before entering the park. When we reopen the park to the public, we will require all visitors to show proof of Covid vaccination before being granted access. We also require them to undergo a rapid test on the day they plan to visit the gorillas.

Since the start of the pandemic, only three park staff at a time are allowed to observe the animals and the regulations now require a minimum distance of 15m between them and the gorillas except for once a week when they get a bit closer to check up on their health. The weekly movement of staff in and out of the forest camps has now been restricted to once every two weeks to reduce staff traffic, hence minimizing possible contamination. Furthermore we test all staff on the day they enter back into the forest after their breaks and repeat the test a week later while they are in the field camps.

But these are all short-term fixes.

The proximity of human settlements to wildlife — exacerbated by the large-scale destruction of natural habitats — increases the risk of zoonoses spilling over to human populations. Zoonoses are infectious diseases that can be transmitted from humans to animals — and vice versa including ebola, anthrax, and coronaviruses.

These are the kinds of scenarios we have been working to prevent in Dzanga Sangha, for almost a decade by supporting research on infectious diseases and their transmission, and how people can better protect themselves against future outbreaks. Our research extends to how we can reduce the risk of disease transmission between humans and habituated gorillas and our decade-long partnership with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Germany has led to the development of an infectious disease early warning system.

This entails systematically screening any dead animals in the forest for anthrax, monkeypox, ebola and some respiratory diseases including COVID-19. Results obtained are then communicated to local and national authorities. This system is designed to help identify the spread of zoonotic pathogens rapidly and initiate immediate responses such as alerting the population to help curb the spread of the disease. To strengthen the efficacy of the programme, we also support efforts to increase awareness about zoonotic diseases within the local and indigenous communities and encourage people to report all wildlife carcasses they come across. The Ministry for Water, Forest, Hunting and Fishing is one of our close allies in this endeavour.

Globally our broken relationship with nature is increasing our vulnerability to zoonotic disease transmission. A holistic approach to decision-making and action that links the health of people with animals and also the integrity of ecosystems, which sustains the livelihoods of local communities is needed.

This approach — also known as “One Health” — is highly appreciated by the local population: It reduces the risk of fatal epidemics and helps to keep habituated gorilla groups and other wildlife populations healthy — thus securing the source of ecotourism income. Now that we hope to reopen the park on October 1st, this will become the most important source of income again for many people in the region.

Silverback Makumba up in the trees in Bai Hokou, Dzanga Sangha © David Santiago

Thanks to our programme, we were also able to make a meaningful contribution to combatting Covid-19 in Bayanga and other villages surrounding the park. Our gorilla veterinarian had for long been the only person in our area who could conduct Covid-19 PCR tests thanks to kits that we received from the Robert Koch Institute. The human population here had largely been spared before the first case was reported in March 2021, it has since spread like wildfire. Thankfully, in the last two months, we haven’t detected any new cases.

There are currently three habituated gorilla groups in Dzanga-Sangha with a total of 26 individuals and with the newest addition — a baby called Mossika — only a few weeks ago, as well as the world’s only habituated group of agile mangabeys. Habituating gorillas is a long process that can take several decades — a sneezing tourist can put it all in jeopardy, which is why we are extremely strict on everyone respecting the health measures we have put in place.

Mossika, the newest addition to the Mata family © Lara Nellissen

Did you know?

Another key to the success of the habituation process lies in the extraordinary abilities, patience and commitment of the BaAka trackers. Their heightened senses and extensive knowledge of the forest is astonishing: They can perceive the slightest noises and smells in dense forests; they recognize some signs in deep foliage that are not visible to the untrained eye; they distinguish the tracks of different animal species; they know how old animal tracks are and in which direction they point.

Where most would easily get lost in the dense undergrowth, they always seem to find their way around almost effortlessly. In April this year, after having spent close to a month searching for the Mata gorilla family, one of our habituated groups that had fled following a violent encounter with another gorilla family, the BaAka trackers eventually managed to locate them in the extreme northern edge of their home range, over 5 km from the Bai Hokou field camp. We are confident that with the help of such a winning team of trackers and researchers, we will be able to safely reopen the park in a few weeks.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.