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Great apes, loss of biodiversity and COVID-19 - A throwback on the race for knowledge

03 - Good Health & Well Being
11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
15 - Life on Land

In early 2020, as the world discovered with increasing concern and distress the tidal spread of COVID-19 infection, experts also turned to our closest cousins with worry. The joint statement issued in March 2020 by IUCN and the Primate Specialist Group was clear: there was no case proving that great apes are susceptible to COVID-19. However, they were highly susceptible to human respiratory pathogens in general and thus, COVID-19 could be fatal. Since then, it has been a race for knowledge to protect great apes, particularly in the wild. 

UNESCO has launched a series of online discussions on biodiversity and our relationship with nature. These discussions, gathering civil society, scientific experts and decision-makers, tackled each a different point of view of the sanitary crisis, its origins and consequences. One webinar in particular shed a specific light on the crisis of biodiversity that led to the pandemic and the additional threat it meant for great apes. The experts invited to speak highlighted 3 main factors to understand the roots of the crisis and how to get past it. 

Understanding the health of biodiversity

The pandemic drove home the fact that our collective relationship with nature was diseased. Poaching and deforestation bring together species that do not naturally meet and expose humans to pathogens of zoonotic origins, which constitute 70% of emerging diseases. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute details the mechanisms between loss of biodiversity and zoonotic diseases and how they will keep emerging if we continue as is. However, an unforeseen positive consequence of the covid-19 crisis is that humanity is now aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy biodiversity. The One Health approach, which interweaves human, animal and environmental health  is now gaining momentum in a paradigm shift. To maintain and capitalise on this new dynamic, this collective understanding, it is crucial to look at, and work with, the communities that are most directly impacted. Communities can become an engine for conservation of biodiversity by presenting how conservation guarantees the sustainability of activities. 

Improving knowledge

COVID-19, for scientists around the globe, became a race against time. As this article is published, vaccines or treatments are still eluding researchers even while the number of casualties is rising. Similarly, primatologists have engaged in such a race to find out how this new virus could affect great apes and to devise safety measures and mitigate risks. To gain time, just as humans confined themselves, authorities forbade access to natural parks to visitors and rangers and scientists were, mostly, sent home. It is thus vital to improve knowledge on great apes’ health but also their environmental health to preserve the species from extinction. UNESCO, with the French National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) and Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project in Uganda is developing a project to survey and monitor great apes and their habitats in 19 African biosphere reserves with UAVs, which reduces human disturbance in protected areas and prevents any risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases. The project will focus specifically on biodiversity health, following the One Health approach. 

Protecting habitats

One unexpected, positive effect of COVID-19 that was largely commented was the decrease in pollution, a literal breath of fresh in an otherwise tense moment. It was also the appearance of wild animals in urban settlements, which led to the realisation that those spaces, dominated by humans, are still shared with the wild. Less visible but just as important were the decrease of refuse found in the wild, factor of transmission of zoonotic diseases to wild animals or, during confinement at least, the stopping of great apes killed by traffic accidents. However, with the high risk of famine due to the lack of meat available in some parts of the world and consequent rise of prices, poaching and illegal hunting have not stopped. COVID-19 is just one risk in a long list that could bring the extinction of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. With the current rate of decline, it is even possible that this extinction be witnessed in our lifetime. With its 39 designated sites (World Heritage sites and/or Biosphere Reserves) in 23 countries in Africa and in Asia that are home or within the range of great apes, UNESCO currently covers all but one sub-specie of great apes, the Cross-River Gorilla. UNESCO is working with Cameroon and Nigeria to designate the Cross-River area as a transboundary biosphere reserve. For its part, Nigeria has submitted a biosphere reserve nomination dossier for this area. UNESCO works with its Member States within these sites to build thriving societies in harmony with its environment. This includes working specifically with local communities to support their ownership of the conservation, protection and sustainable development efforts. Proximity with great apes habitats, for instance, increase the risks of transmission of zoonotic diseases. To raise awareness on this issue in the context of COVID-19, UNESCO, with the support of the Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project in Uganda, designed a series of posters for communities, but also park rangers and/or employees detailing safety recommendations to prevent transmission between humans but also between humans and animals. 

Knowledge is a constant journey and each step is filled with more information, and more questions. However, it is not a journey that should be undertaken alone. Knowledge communities, regular or ad hoc, further the dissemination of information and good practices, and, in the case of our webinars, can help achieve important goals such as protecting species from extinction and against time. The webinars gather scientists but also many managers of sites that are home to great apes, decision makers and members of civil society that were all anxious for information and advice. UNESCO, as a clearing house and laboratory of ideas, will keep organising and maintaining platforms of exchanges and disseminate its results.  

COVID-19 and loss of biodiversity: another threat for great apes?

Extracts and presentations

Shamila Nair-Bedouelle

Professor Inza Koné

Professor Sabrina Krief

Dr Anton Nurcahyo

Noëline Raondry Rakotoarisoa

Miguel Clüsener-Godt