Scientists say gorillas could catch coronavirus; parks in Africa shut down

Human respiratory diseases like COVID-19 are one of the biggest threats facing mountain gorillas, with even the common cold being potentially fatal.

Male mountain gorilla from the Mukiza group is seen at Bwindi National Park near the town of Kisoro (photo credit: REUTERS)
Male mountain gorilla from the Mukiza group is seen at Bwindi National Park near the town of Kisoro
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While cats and dogs might be safe during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, that doesn't mean all animals are in the clear, with experts claiming that some species of primate could be at risk of contracting COVID-19, Newsweek reported.
In fact, for many, such as mountain gorillas, the risk is even greater than it is for humans.
The news has prompted the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to close down for all visitors starting March 23 due to the ongoing virus outbreak, as they fear the local population of mountain gorillas could be at severe risk of contracting the virus.
The mountain gorilla, a sub-species of the eastern gorilla, is endangered, numbering only around 1,060 worldwide, with over 60% of them residing in Virunga National Park.
The move was made in response to official guidelines from the World Health Organization regarding the spread of the virus, as well as "advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus," said Virunga National Park. "As such, we must remain steadfast in safeguarding our population of this endangered species."
Other parks are adopting similar measures, with three national parks in Rwanda suspending all tourism and research to prevent the gorillas from getting sick, The Associated Press reported. In addition, Gabon, which borders the DRC to the west, last week also banned all tourists from seeing the native chimpanzees and gorillas for the same reason, France24 reported.
If the virus can be contracted by gorillas, it would not be unprecedented, as there is a long history of disease being spread between humans and other primates. However, respiratory viruses like COVID-19 are especially noteworthy, with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) listing human respiratory diseases as one of the biggest threats facing mountain gorillas.
"Because gorillas share much of our DNA, they can contract illnesses from people – but they don’t have the immune system to fight them," the WWF said on their website. "Even a simple cold can devastate an entire gorilla population." In fact, according to a study published in Frontiers in Public Health, respiratory diseases are responsible for over 20% of gorilla deaths.
Other diseases can affect them too, with a 1995 Ebola outbreak having killed off around 90% of all gorillas in Gabon.
With the novel coronavirus often taking weeks to show symptoms after being contagious, wildlife conservationists believe cutting off human contact with the gorillas is of the utmost urgency.
However, the move could have big economic ramifications.
Wildlife tourism is critical for the economies of the DRC and neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. However, as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, tourism here has taken a serious blow, as it has worldwide. As a result, the parks may be understaffed and underfunded, which may cause poaching – an even greater threat than viruses – to start increasing.