Covid-19 activates illegal gorilla hunting

A silverback male with his calf in Bwindi National Park, (Uganda). DIEGO SÁNCHEZ

The Dian Fossey Foundation reduces the contact time with mountain gorillas to avoid infections

Ugandan authorities warn that pandemic may increase deaths from illegal hunters

By Diego Sánchez

After just over four months of pandemic, many things about how SARS-CoV-2 works in the human body and its possible consequences are still unknown. There is also no scientific evidence about its incidence in the animal kingdom, and more specifically in our distant relatives. We do not know, for example, if mountain gorillas (‘Gorilla beringei beringei’) can be infected with covid-19, but what is shown is that they are susceptible to other better-known human respiratory viruses, because we share with these great apes a high percentage of our own DNA.

At present, these majestic beings are in danger of extinction. According to the latest report by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Preservation Foundation, there are an estimated 1,000 specimens in the wild worldwide, spread between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In order to reduce the risk of contagion as much as possible, the foundation’s staff have taken extreme precautions in the protection tasks that they usually carry out in the Nkuba conservation area (DRC) with 1,300 square kilometers of extension.

Basic monitoring only

«As you can imagine our work has been greatly altered and the situation on the ground is changing rapidly, so our trackers have remained in the forest with new security protocols,» says Donna Gorman, head of public relations for the foundation. Since last March 16, the contact time with gorillas has been limited to the minimum time that was dedicated to basic monitoring of their health and injuries. Normal investigative activities have been suspended. After each sighting and assessment, the teams on the ground walk away 100 meters to maintain a safe distance.

«Fortunately, we are in a fairly remote conservation area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and we have not been seriously affected by the coronavirus outbreak,» Gorman admits. Even so, before entering the forest, all personnel must pass temperature controls. If a person has a fever or has symptoms, they will be quarantined. The use of a mask is mandatory, and hand washing and disinfection have been implemented frequently. Teleworking has also been promoted and activities involving local communities have been temporarily suspended to reduce the risk of exposure. In addition, the museum that the foundation has in Musanze (Rwanda) remains closed.

Economic despair

Despite their efforts, the danger of contagion can come in other ways. In early June, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) reported the death of Rafiki, one of the most charismatic silverback gorillas of the Nkuringo group, in the Bwindi National Park (about 400 gorillas), by the ilegal action of four furtive hunters. The hunters claimed self-defense, but this incident has become known after conservationists and Ugandan government officials warned that the pandemic and suspension of great ape tourism is leading desperate people to poaching. The risk of transmission of the virus to primates increases if, as a consequence of illegal hunting, more people come into contact with gorillas, the UWA warns.

In the DRC, in the local communities around the conservation area, gardening, animal husbandry and fishing projects continue at full capacity to ensure food security and household income, as an alternative way of survival outside the habitat of the gorilla. «However, we are concerned about the possibility of illegal hunting increasing as food prices rise if Covid-19 disrupts supply chains,» laments Ivan Amani, community engagement manager for the Dian Fossey Foundation.

After three months of tourism freezing, on June 17 the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) announced the revival of the sector, as well as the resumption of international travel for charter flights. Since last July 2, testing is mandatory for tourists, both national and foreign, who want to visit parks such as Nyungwe or Volcanoes. Nationals must prove a positive no within 48 hours prior to the visit. For tourists arriving by air, a negative test will be required 72 hours before entering the country. «The tests can be booked by email or by phone, and those who test positive will not be admitted to the parks,» says Clare Akamanzi, CEo of the RDB.

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