COVID-19 A Threat to Great Apes, Closely Related to Humans

Ramesh Jaura Talks to Ian Redmond

A tropical field British biologist and conservationist Ian Redmond has served as Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla in 2009 and for the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species since 2010.

BERLIN | LONDON (IDN) – The fact that ecosystems and human health intersect has been repeatedly emphasized by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “As we encroach on nature and deplete vital habitats, increasing numbers of species are at risk. That includes humanity and the future we want,” he reiterated in a message on the International Day for Biological Diversity, observed on May 22, 2020.

These remarks come at a time when in a move to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world have imposed lockdowns (which are meanwhile being lifted or eased). Research indicates that gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gibbons are as susceptible as humans to viruses such as the COVID-19, says Ian Redmond, a tropical field British biologist and conservationist, renowned for his work with great apes and elephants.

“All apes and Old World monkeys have the same ACE-2 proteins in their cells as we do, and it is these receptors with which the SARS-Cov-2 virus bind to invade the cell,” adds Redmond, who has served as Ambassador for the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species since 2010. [Read more >]

For more than 35 years he has been associated with Mountain Gorillas, through research, filming, tourism and conservation work. He has served as Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla in 2009 and for the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species since 2010.

In an exclusive interview with IDN, Redmond explained: “As a precaution, all ape-viewing sites have suspended tourist visits and when vets or rangers are monitoring habituated apes, they keep 10 m distance from them and wear face masks to reduce risk of droplet infection. Similar precautions are being taken in zoos and sanctuaries caring for apes.”

“Fortunately, no apes have yet been reported to have tested positive for COVID-19. Sadly though, demand for macaques has increased in biomedical research labs seeking a vaccine, and although there are breeding facilities supplying this demand from captive-bred animals, there are reports of wild-caught monkeys being traded illegally under false ‘captive-bred’ documents,” Redmond said.

Experts say that great apes have every reason to resent us. We share 99 per cent of our DNA with them, yet everywhere they exist, humans attack, encroach on and generally interfere with their peaceful lives.

Following is the rest of the full text of an Email interview:

Question: Which of the four subspecies of the gorilla around the world – including, mountain gorillas, eastern lowland type, western lowland and the cross-river type – is known to be most vulnerable?

Ian Redmond: All four gorilla sub-species are equally vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, though the consequences of any such infection, were it to occur, would be more serious for the least numerous sub-species.

Q: What’s the population of all subspecies of the gorilla worldwide? Which subspecies constitute the largest number?

IR: Gorillas are found naturally in only 10 countries in Africa, from the Cross River State in Nigeria south to the River Congo and east to the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda and western Uganda. All four sub-species are endangered, three of then critically so. The latest published population estimates are:

Eastern Gorilla Gorilla beringei

Mountain gorilla ‘Gorilla beringei beringei‘ > 1,000 (last census reports 1,063) Endangered

Eastern Lowland or Grauer’s gorilla G. b. graueri – 3,800 (range of estimates 1,280 – 9,050) Critically Endangered

Western Gorilla Gorilla gorilla

Western Lowland Gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla – 361, 919 (range of estimates 302,973 – 460,093) Critically Endangered

Cross River Gorilla G. g. 300 Critically Endangered


Q: How have the numbers been fluctuating since the 20th century?

IR: All ape taxa are declining in number with the exception of humans (7.35 billion and rising rapidly) and mountain gorillas (1,063 and rising slowly)

Q: Which countries are home to the gorilla?

IR: The 10 countries with gorillas are: Mountain Gorilla – Rwanda, Uganda, DRC; Grauer’s Gorilla – DRC only; Western Lowland Gorilla – Angola (Cabinda only), Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon. Cross River Gorilla – Cameroon and Nigeria.

Q: What are the biggest threats to the gorilla?

IR: Hunting (for bushmeat, magic and live infants), loss and degradation of habitat (for agriculture, logging, mines, roads and railways) and disease – especially Ebola, but potentially COVID-19 if it were to get into a population.

Q: What’s being done by the international community – intergovernmental and international non-governmental organizations – to ensure safe habitat to the gorilla? Do these suffice? What can communities do in addition?

IR: There is strong political support for gorilla conservation, but the level of actual protection on the ground varies considerably. It is strongest in the east where gorilla tourism plays such an important role in the economy of Rwanda and Uganda, and weakest where poverty, war and cultural beliefs in the power of gorilla meat and body parts lead to them being actively hunted.

In 2005 the Kinshasa Declaration of the UN-Great Apes Survival Partnership committed the 23 great ape range states to ensuring all great apes and their natural habitat would be protected, but this was not legally binding. []

The ten countries with gorilla populations met in Paris in 2007 under the UN Convention on Migratory Species and drew up The Gorilla Agreement, a legally binding treaty – so far with seven parties. []

Ian Redmond in eastern DRC. Courtesy of M. O’Donnell, Channel 7

< Ian Redmond in eastern DRC. Courtesy of M. O’Donnell, Channel

There are numerous projects in all ten range states supported by a wide range of NGOs, from single species ones such as The Gorilla Organization to global multi-species ones such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF. [A list of NGOs working on gorilla conservation can be found here:]

Many NGOs work with communities to reduce the need for people to continue traditional practices that impact on gorillas. Ex-poachers are being taught organic farming and make a better living that way. Reduced impact logging can keep gorilla habitat habitable outside protected areas, and new community reserves are being created to complement the national parks in a network of inter-connected protected areas.

Revenue sharing schemes where there is successful gorilla tourism bring benefits to communities around gorilla habitat (communities decide how such income is spent, say a new clinic or corn-mill or rainwater harvesting tank on school roofs), and that same tourism creates many job opportunities from hotel staff to musicians and dancers demonstrating traditional culture to visitors and selling of crafts as souvenirs.

The latter benefits have been hit by COVID-19 travel restrictions. New ways of financing gorilla conservation are being explored, such as payment for ecosystem services, especially carbon sequestration and storage.

But gorilla habitat is also now threatened by predicted changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change – sub-Saharan Africa faces decreasing rainfall and if average global temperatures rise by three or four degrees, gorilla habitat will become arid, according to the climate models.

Thus, protecting the Congo Basin rainforest is not only good for gorillas and other species therein, it is essential to stabilise the climate for the future of humanity and the biosphere. Moreover, gorillas are second only to elephants in their importance as seed dispersal agents, so protecting gorillas today is protecting the trees of tomorrow. [Gardeners of the Forest] . [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 June 2020]

Related links >

Photo: Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei). Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

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