What happens if an endangered mountain gorilla catches Covid-19? A veterinarian explains.

There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and about 460 of them live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In the park’s very dense, high altitude forest (hence the name “impenetrable”), veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is working to keep them alive through the Covid-19 pandemic.

No gorilla has come down with Covid-19, but Kalema-Zikusoka fears what might happen if one did. Gorillas live in tight-knit groups, so a respiratory infection could easily spread among them. Infected gorillas could get sick and die, or possibly, suffer long-term consequences from the disease.

Kalema-Zikusoka founded the nonprofit Conservation Through Public Health, where she works with the local community, and the park, to keep the gorillas healthy, and create a tourism economy that’s sustainable for both the gorillas and the people who live near them.

“This virus is a threat to the gorillas,” she said on a recent Zoom call from Entebbe, Uganda, where she lives. “Before we never used to have to wear a mask when you visit the gorillas, but now you have to.” Also new: Visitors must stay 32 feet (10 meters) away from the animals, up from 23 feet (7 meters) before the pandemic. Visitors now also get their temperatures checked upon arrival.

Kalema-Zikusoka told me about other precautions in place to protect the animals — what she’d do if one got sick, and how to quarantine these 300-plus-pound animals should they be exposed. She also described the intense and competing challenges conservation groups like hers face to keep the animals safe these days: When tourism dropped due to the pandemic, poaching increased. But when tourism resumed this fall, the threat of spreading disease to the gorillas increased.

“Tourism is a good thing, but it has to be done in a responsible way so that it doesn’t end up wiping out the very species,” she says. “It’s a very delicate balance.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

A gorilla can’t social distance

Mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Roger de la Harpe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Brian Resnick

The gorillas in Bwindi — do they often come close to humans?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Yes. There’s about 459 gorillas in the park and about 200 are habituated for tourism and research.

Brian Resnick

What does habituated mean? They will let people approach them?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Habituated generally means … you can get as close as 5, 7 meters to them. It means they won’t run away when they see a human being.

Brian Resnick

Do the gorillas come in close enough contact with people that you have to worry about respiratory diseases like Covid-19?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Yes, we definitely do worry about it.

There have always been strict guidelines [for humans to stay 23 feet away from them]. But some of the gorillas, which are so used to people, can get even closer. So actually, that’s why we thought that during the pandemic we really needed to reduce their proximity to people.

Before we never used to have to wear a mask when you visit the gorillas, but now you have to wear a mask when you visit the gorillas.

And I think it’s going to continue to be emphasized even after the pandemic, whenever it ends. I think we’re going to continue with all these regulations.

Brian Resnick

I imagine you can’t put a mask on a gorilla or have them protect themselves.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Absolutely not. You can’t. And the problem with them is that they don’t know how to social distance. They are in a harem with a lead silverback and many females and babies and a few other adult males. And they’re always grooming each other, they’re always moving together as a group. So if one of them gets Covid-19, it’s very easy for the rest of them to get it because they don’t know how to social distance.

So the best we can do is teach people to social distance from them. And also at the same time, hand hygiene has really been reinforced and use of hand sanitizer.

Many human diseases can infect gorillas

Brian Resnick

Is this a constant problem: diseases passing between people and these gorillas?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Yes. Disease becomes an issue once you habituate [gorillas] for tourism and research, because you get close enough to make them sick. Either when gorillas are visited inside the park [or] when gorillas go out of the park to people’s gardens, they can pick up diseases.

In 1996, actually, one of the first outbreaks that I had to handle was when the gorillas walked outside the park to eat people’s banana plants and they found dirty clothing and scarecrows and got scabies. It caused death in an infant.

So yeah, we’re worried about those kinds of diseases. Influenza viruses are also a very big worry for us, other diseases that cause the common cold, and other viral respiratory diseases.

Brian Resnick

Is it generally the case that any virus that can infect a human can infect a gorilla?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Yes, all of them, because we share 98.4 percent genetic material and can easily make each other sick.

Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, mountain gorilla. (Gorila beringei beringei),
A mountain gorilla at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Let’s say a gorilla gets Covid-19, what happens next?

Brian Resnick

Do you worry if one gorilla gets sick it could kill them? Do we know how Covid-19 would present itself in a gorilla?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

The same way that it has varied effects in people — some people don’t show symptoms, some people it’s mild symptoms, others it’s very severe. We feel that the same thing could happen with the gorillas. We’ve known that when gorillas get diseases like scabies, it’s very severe in the gorillas, more severe than it would be in a human being.

People, gorillas, chimps, and other old-world primates like some of the monkeys and baboons, we share the same protein receptor that the SARS-CoV-2 virus attaches to. Which probably means that the way that it can make us sick, is the way that it can make them sick.

Brian Resnick

Are you prepared to treat the gorillas? Is there a plan?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

We definitely would. If the gorillas were to get it, there’s a contingency plan that has been developed with other conservation partners. It’s been led by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

If Covid-19 gets into one gorilla, that gorilla group has to be quarantined — it’s not allowed to mix with any other gorilla group. Once they start to mix, then we have a complete disaster on our hands, complete disaster. So the first thing is to cordon off that group.

Brian Resnick

How do you quarantine gorillas?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

So the park rangers have to be with them 24 hours basically to make sure they don’t mix with other groups. At least they have to be with them from the beginning of the day to the end of the day because at night they don’t move around. They just stay in their nests.

Brian Resnick

If one gets sick, would you use some of the therapies that have been developed for humans or?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

They’ll be treated with the same things that are being used to treat people.

But it’s much more difficult to treat a wild animal than it is to treat a human being. You can’t provide the same level of intensive treatment to a wild gorilla as you would a human being who you can put in a hospital ward, put on a ventilator for days and days. Because there’s just over 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining in the world … we wouldn’t want Covid-19 to be the reason why they’re being wiped out.

Brian Resnick

When you said you can’t put them on a ventilator for days: Why not?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Because the gorillas are living in the wild and as much as possible we don’t want to disrupt them, bring them into a captive setting, put them though all of this and then release them back to the wild, because they could even return with more diseases that can affect the others. So it’s a very delicate balance. It’s very, very rare that we take in a gorilla, treat it in a hospital setting and then release them out. As much as possible, we do all the treatments in the field.

Brian Resnick

How do you treat them in the field?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

You have to dart them with the drug because the mountain gorillas are not … they only eat the food that they’re supposed to eat in the forest. They’re not fed. We don’t feed the mountain gorillas. They’re completely free-ranging, they’re completely wild.

Why resuming gorilla tourism is worth the risk

Brian Resnick

Is resuming tourism worth the risk of potentially bringing Covid-19 into the park?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Yes. We think that is worth the risk, for sure. The local communities of Bwindi have become so reliant on gorilla tourism to survive — which is good and bad. It’s good in that they feel that the gorillas are their survival. The future of the gorillas is tied in with their future. So they really protect [them].

When tourism went down and there was no tourists coming in, everybody was struggling. The local economy suffered and poaching went up. In other parts of Africa, people actually eat gorillas as a delicacy.

So if you don’t have tourism, it’s very hard to protect the gorillas because grant money is not necessarily enough, especially now. The only gorilla subspecies whose population is increasing is the one where tourism is happening.

Do the gorillas notice anything unusual going on?

Brian Resnick

Do you think the gorillas know something different is happening? Have they noticed people wearing masks or noticed the greater distance between them and people?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

I guess they were used to being visited often by people every day. Different people come and spend an hour with them and go away. And so one thing I think they’re finding a bit strange is that they can’t get close to people like they used to. So we’re kind of de-habituating them.

But one thing that we’ve been happy about is that more gorillas are being born. More gorillas are being born this year than other years. And we don’t know whether it’s to do with a lack of tourism or just coincidental. Research has to be done on that.

Gorilla beringei beringei in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.
A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Roger de la Harpe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Could a gorilla be vaccinated?

Brian Resnick

As we see the vaccines for humans get approved by various governments, could you potentially vaccinate these gorillas, or is that not something that would happen?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Vaccination of gorillas cannot be ruled out, but to vaccinate gorillas we have to make sure that it’s really, really, really safe for humans. I think it’s going to take a while to see how humans react to the vaccine. And we need to see how much they are actually protected as a result of the vaccine.

Yeah, we need more data to know whether it’s safe on the gorillas.

Brian Resnick

Would you say this pandemic is an existential threat to gorillas?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

This virus is a threat to the gorillas. It definitely is a threat to gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans — the three non-human great apes. Just this morning I was having a chat with people working with orangutans and we were talking about some of the things that I’m talking about with you — how do we protect these great apes during a pandemic like Covid-19, the people looking after them, the people who come to visit them.

It’s also a big threat to other wildlife. It came from wildlife, it can easily go back to wildlife and that’s something that we’re all very concerned about.

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