Great Apes May Be Susceptible to COVID-19
Experts have concluded that great apes may also be susceptible to COVID-19. Both the IUCN Wildlife Health Specialist Group and the IUCN Primate Specialist Group emphasize that, while there are no reported cases of great apes having been infected, it is safe to assume that they are susceptible to COVID-19. Previous studies have shown that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. The Gorilla and the Chimpanzee are protected under the Convention on Migratory Species.
Great apes are already facing numerous threats including habitat loss, poaching and other infectious diseases such as Ebola. COVID-19 adds yet another potential threat to great ape populations around the globe, all of which are categorized either as endangered or critically endangered.
The most effective measure for risk reduction is to minimize contact between great apes and infected people.
Accordingly, the IUCN experts have recommended the suspension of great ape tourism and the reduction of field research. In response to this call, the majority of Gorilla tourism sites have been closed as of 23 March 2020.
While these closures are crucial to reduce the risk of infection, the loss of tourism revenue could have a significant impact on great ape conservation as well as on the national economies of great ape Range States.
At the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Gorilla Agreement held in June 2019, H.E. Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities of the Government of Uganda highlighted the importance of tourism stating that:
“In Uganda for example, tourism which is largely wildlife based, contributes about 9 per cent of the country’s GDP. Tourism continues to be the leading foreign exchange earner for Uganda, bringing in US$ 1.45 billion annually. The sector provides 1.173 million jobs in Uganda accounting for 8 per cent of total employment in the country. […] Gorilla tourism alone accounts for about 60 per cent of the total wildlife protected area earnings for Uganda”.
As many people are forced out of work during national lockdowns, there is a growing concern that poaching of high-value species could increase1. Thus, there have been calls for economic support to offset the loss of income and employment from tourism as well as measures to support public health in local communities2. Given the economic importance of wildlife tourism to great ape Range States, it is important to support great ape conservation as economic recovery efforts move ahead.