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Great apes and covid-19, an additional threat to already endangered species?

15 - Life on Land

Due to the destruction of their natural habitat and increasing contacts with human activities, Great apes, of which seven species are already threatened by extinction, are potentially vulnerable to this new virus.

75% of new infectious diseases are zoonoses, i.e. transmitted from animals to humans. The origin of SARS-Cov-2, which is currently spreading across the planet, is not known. However, initial studies indicate that the coronavirus present in bats has a genome that is 96% identical to SARS-Cov-2. Nonetheless, the bat coronavirus cannot bind to receptors in human cells and a mix with a coronavirus from another wild animal is required for transmission to humans. The pangolin, the world's most poached species, is believed to be this intermediate host. They are poached for their meat, considered a luxury dish, and their scales, used in traditional Asian medicine.

The emergence of these new infectious diseases can be linked to various factors: the destruction of natural habitats converted into areas used for human activities leads to a geographical rapprochement between humans and wildlife, but also the extreme crowding conditions in live animal markets between species that do not usually mix.

The great apes (2 species of chimpanzees, 3 species of orangutans, and 2 species of gorillas) are our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. Like us, they can contract highly infectious diseases. For instance, in the 2000s, gorillas and chimpanzees died of the Ebola virus; in some areas up to 95% of gorillas have been decimated by this disease. Today, as SARS-Cov-2 is spreading around the world, all eyes are also turning to the great apes. 

Although it is not yet known whether great apes can contract this strain of coronavirus, OC43, a human-transmitted strain of coronavirus, was detected in chimpanzees in Côte d'Ivoire a few years ago. Here again, it must be noted that the proximity of human and animal populations, mainly due to the destruction of the great apes' natural habitat, increases the risk of zoonoses, while human activities sometimes induce pathologies in chimpanzees. 

Great apes, seven species already threatened with extinction, are therefore potentially vulnerable to this new virus. UNESCO, through its network of biospere reserves that are great apes habitats, is working closely with the managers of these sites to monitor the situation. Today, most gorilla and chimpanzee tourism sites are closed. Similarly, in the Gombe Masito Ugalla Biosphere Reserve in Tanzania, the Jane Goodall Institute has put in place safety protocols for the protection of chimpanzees. 

Sabrina Krief, a French veterinarian and primatologist specializing in behavioral ecology and zoopharmacognosy (chemistry of natural substances consumed) in chimpanzees, talks about the problems related to promiscuity between humans and chimpanzees (see below). A professor at the National Museum of Natural History, Sabrina is Director of the Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project at Kibale National Park in Uganda, which has put in place preventive measures in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The geographical proximity between chimpanzees and humans, caused by the encroachment of intensive agriculture on their forest habitat, creates health risks for chimpanzees.  The territory of the Sebitoli chimpanzees that we have been studying since 2008 is located in Kibale National Park in Uganda. It is surrounded by agricultural areas and is crossed by an asphalt road with heavy traffic. Direct risks to their lives exist (collision, poaching) and indirect threats also affect them. Thus, they are exposed to pollution by phytosanitary products (fertilizers, pesticides...), exhaust fumes, plastic pollution linked to the waste thrown along the road but also to diseases. When the crops are ripe, the humans guarding the fields and the chimpanzees that come out of the forest to feed use the same spaces, at the same time, favouring the cross transmission of pathogens between the two species. Similarly, fruit thrown by travellers at baboons and soda bottles littering the sides of the forest with saliva expose chimpanzees to human pathogens. In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to reduce the risks associated with proximity to humans by applying very strict measures by research teams, but it is still very difficult to control the proportion of risk associated with proximity to agricultural areas and roads. Urgent action is needed to reduce the overall threats to great apes if we are to prevent the loss of our closest relatives and the planet's vital habitats associated with them.

Sabrina Krief, French veterinarian and primatologist

UNESCO is in contact with the 19 African biosphere reserve managers in particular to monitor the situation. With the support of Sabrina Krief, online meetings will be held to discuss with them the risks of disease transmission between great apes and humans, how to guard against it in terms of protection measures and ecological monitoring of the habitat, how to recognize the first signs and to encourage exchanges of experience.

Great apes represent an important part of the frugivore biomass of tropical forests in Africa and Southeast Asia. They participate in the dissemination of seeds and thus in the regeneration of forests. Protecting the great apes means protecting tropical forests and the hundreds of plant and animal species that share their habitat, forests that are also essential for combating climate change and maintaining a multitude of ecosystem services. 

UNESCO and its partners are strongly committed to protecting great apes and their habitats.

Learn more with our brochure "Great Apes and their Habitats"


Photo credits:

  • © Getty Images, Gary Sandy Wales
  • © Jean Michel Krief