Tourists can spread COVID-19 to Wild Mountain Gorillas by taking selfies with the animals

Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in Volcanoes National Park. Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Selfies, gorillas and the risks of transmitting disease

Tourists can cause the virus COVID-19 to wild mountain gorillas by taking selfies with the animals without taking precautions. Researchers at Oxford Brookes University researched nearly 1,000 Instagram posts and found that most gorilla tourists were close to the animals, without face masks, to allow transmission of viruses and diseases.

The lead author and Oxford Brookes University Primate Conservation alumni Gaspard Van Hamme, who is visiting the photos of people visiting mountain gorillas in East Africa, said: ‘The risk of transmitting diseases between visitors and gorillas is very worrying. It is of the utmost importance that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure that gorilla treks do not further threaten these already endangered monkeys. ”

In January 2021, captured gorillas in the San Diego Zoo tested positive for EARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, proving that the current pandemic has the potential to affect large monkeys as well. Tourist photos examined for this research found that humans were close enough to the animals that disease transmission would be possible.

The importance of wearing face masks

Dr Magdalena Svensson, a lecturer in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, added: ‘In the photos we analyzed, we found that face masks are rarely worn by tourists visiting gorillas, and that it is possible for disease transmission between people. and the gorillas they visit. As people around the world become more accustomed to wearing face masks, we hope that wearing face masks will become a common practice in gorilla treks in the future. ‘

Gorilla numbers in the balance

Mountain gorillas are endemic to the East African region. They are present in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park), Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park), and Rwanda (Volcanoes National National Park). In recent decades, these populations have suffered from the devastating effects of human activity, but in recent times the number of gorillas has begun to increase, and it is now estimated that there are 1,063 individuals.

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Conservation Through Public Health, Uganda, said: “This research provides a valuable perspective on how many tourists are willing to share their close encounters with mountain gorillas via Instagram, creating expectations for future tourists. It emphasizes there is a great need for responsible tourism to provide adequate protection while transmitting diseases, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. ”

Tourism: environment and wildlife

Trekking is an important financial support for the conservation of mountain gorillas. But a large number of visitors can have an impact on wildlife and the environment – guidelines to mitigate this include maintaining a minimum distance of 7 meters between visitors and gorillas. The Oxford Brookes study shows that these guidelines are not adequately followed and applied.

Russell A. Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN / SSC Primate Specialist Group, who was not involved in the study, said: “It has become clear in recent years that studies on the spread of anthroponic and zoonotic diseases are crucial for the field of primates. conservation. In view of this, it is very exciting to see that the new research on this topic is coming from the Primate Conservation Group at Oxford Brookes University. While this study focused on one species, the mountain gorilla, the lessons learned also apply to many other primate species that are increasingly coming into contact with humans. This line of research will certainly become more important in the future. ”

Reference: February 16, 2021, People and nature.
DOI: 10.1002 / pan3.10187

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