How Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas Survived Covid-19
The world’s last mountain gorillas live in two subpopulations around the Virunga Massif bordering Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC. Uganda is the only country with both subpopulations within its borders in the southwestern frontier.
Most of Uganda’s mountain gorillas are habituated to human presence, about 60%, to foster tourism and research, bringing the gorillas near people daily. Yet the gorillas are susceptible to human pathogens, including fatal respiratory-disease viruses like COVID-19.
Like all great apes, Mountain gorillas are genetically related to humans as species, sharing 98% of the genetic genome. Although there are currently no COVID-19 infections in mountain gorillas, Uganda took immediate steps to minimize the COVID-19 threat for fear of human-to-gorilla infections.
Here, we attempt to describe how Uganda’s mountain gorillas survived. The government and conservation bodies’ actions to prevent the threat of Covid-19 infections in mountain gorillas.
While no words can describe the human suffering and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot understate how much the Covid19 threat posed to the endangered mountain gorillas. More than half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas are habituated to humans. They come close to people every day, establishing the high risk of spreading the pandemic to the jungle dwellers.
Furthermore, the highly protected gorilla forests are surrounded by the highest density human populations in Africa, presenting an environment with ideal conditions for COVID-19 to spread to the mountain gorillas.
Therefore, the Uganda Wildlife Authority collaborating with IUCN, IGCP, and Gorilla Doctors, used all those facts ad a foundation for response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to the conservation of mountain gorillas. Together they implemented prevention measures primarily directed at the human-gorilla interface in protected area management.
Preventive practices around gorillas
Mountain gorillas are a conservation success ultimately because the majority of the gorilla population, approximately 60%, is habituated to human interaction to facilitate tourism. No other primate species in the wild has such a significant portion of the total world population coming into close daily proximity with people.
While gorilla tourism may enable the implementation of successful conservation measures, it poses primate conservation threats. Most significantly, it is well documented that mountain gorillas have previously fallen to human pathogens at sites where mountain gorillas and people come into contact. Viral respiratory infections can lead to fatal secondary bacterial infections.
The recognition that mountain gorillas may suffer from human-borne infectious diseases motivated conservation players to implement best practices to prevent the pandemic from spreading into the gorilla forests.
Visitors must wear a face mask and keep a 32 feet (10 meters) distance from the mountain gorillas. There are temperature checks and disinfection of shoes and hands before guides escort visitors into the park.
However, the best practices didn’t come into effect until the situation was studied and a contingency plan put in place to prevent any direct contact between gorillas and people (e.g., tourists touching gorillas) and minimize indirect contact with gorillas to the extent possible.
Suspending Gorilla tourism to develop preventive guidelines
The Uganda Wildlife Authority, in response to the pandemic threat to wild animals, closed all the National Parks on March 26. UWA implemented the plan to protect wildlife, employees, and visitors while developing a contingency plan for reopening.
Gorilla tourism generates significant revenues for the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s operating activities. It is an essential source of livelihood opportunities for communities adjacent to the gorilla parks.
Once the Uganda Government halted tourism activities, park personnel were slashed to allow a controlled few to continue daily monitoring gorilla health and safety. Park personnel were instructed to conduct daily fever checks and self-assessments of signs of COVID-19. As laboratory diagnostic testing capacity ramped up in the country, protected area authorities implemented regular screening of park personnel.
For example, in Bwindi National Park, rangers and trackers were tested for COVID-19 before reporting for rotational duty. Only test-negative individuals were assigned to 14-day stints at ranger patrol posts while restricting movement to and from villages and homes.
During the lockdown, the spreading of COVID-19 was evidenced in most towns and villages adjacent to mountain gorilla parks. Despite best intentions and concerted efforts on the part of the protected area authorities to screen park personnel for COVID-19, gorilla experts feared there was an exceedingly high risk that a COVID-19 positive person would come into contact with gorillas. And controlling the pandemic within the mountain gorilla zone could become somewhat impossible.
As a result of Uganda suspending and closing the national parks for almost nine months, activities in communities surrounding the parks came to a halt for even a more extended period after opening them. Lodges, camps, and hotels were closed off during that period, meaning the community breadwinners were unemployed. A few turned to the illegal activities in the park to support their families.
Within the first three months of Uganda’s tourism lockdown, Uganda Wildlife Authority’s patrol efforts retrieved more than double the number of snares usually recovered in wildlife-protected areas around Uganda. Including Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where almost half of the world’s estimated 1,063 mountain gorillas live.
The absence of tourism during the COVID-19 lockdown highly contributed to the killing of a dominant male gorilla in Bwindi. On June 1, 2020, the lead silverback of the Nkuringo gorilla group lost his life to a hungry and vulnerable community member hunting duiker and bush pigs for food and sale at the local market.
Gorillas are not eaten in Uganda but become accidental victims of snares set for other species. When the poacher speared a bush pig, its scream prompted the silverback gorilla to charge him to protect his family. The poacher then stabbed and killed the gorilla, claiming that it was in self-defense. The poacher was sentenced to 11 years in jail, which is the longest anyone in Uganda has been convicted of killing wild animals.
Though this harsh sentence was intended to deter other community members, lack of food sources due to tourism suspension was likely to result in similar incidents among desperate community members. Thankfully, no other gorilla has suffered the same fate since Rafiki’s death.
To reopen tourism, the Uganda Government, through Uganda Wildlife Authority, collaborating with tourism players, implemented strict operating procedures.
Public Health Operating procedures.
With support from International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), Uganda Wildlife Authority instituted guidelines to minimize disease transmission between people and gorillas when tourism began in 1993. These rules included not being allowed to visit the gorillas when showing signs of illness, maintaining a 7-m distance, and turning away to cough or sneeze.
During the pandemic, the viewing distance between people and gorillas became a 10-meter (32-inch) viewing distance. All visitors, rangers, and doctors have to wear masks to minimize the spread of respiratory diseases to gorillas. And they have to screen for symptoms, sanitize and observe a cautionary social distance.
To minimize the risk of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases spreading from people to gorillas, conservation organizations, including CTPH, IGCP, Gorilla Doctors, Max Planck Institute, and Bwindi Community Hospital, came together to train Park staff. They trained 400 park staff to wear protective face masks, enforce hand hygiene and maintain a 10-m excellent viewing distance. The rangers received double-layered cloth face masks and hand sanitizers.
Every person entering the forest had to wash their hands, disinfect their boots before and during the trek to the gorillas, and allow mandatory temperature checks.
One hundred nineteen community volunteers called the Gorilla Guardians received the same training to help herd mountain gorillas from community land to the park. Every month, the activity occurs a few days among habituated gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable. The Gorilla Guardians also received standard loth face masks, hand sanitizers, liquid soap, and non-contact infrared thermometers.
Trained Village Health and Conservation Teams conducted behavior change communication at the household and village level. They help communities observe public health operating procedures to mitigate COVID-19, which resulted in an increase in handwashing facilities at their homes for fear of contracting the disease.
CTPH is working with UWA and local Health offices, Uganda Virus Research Institute, University of Madison-Wisconsin, and other partners to test gorillas and people interfacing with gorillas both inside and outside the park for COVID-19.
Many international donors have generously funded these activities, including IUCN Save the Species and the European Union, the British High Commission, and individual donors.
All the above efforts have helped Uganda’s mountain gorillas survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Community sustainability programs
The absence of tourism income also became a threat to the survival of the mountain gorillas because the economic incentive for communities to protect them by not entering their habitat to poach was removed. Additionally, there was a reduction in tourism revenue that sustains park operations, including anti-poaching patrols.
This prompted the government to reopen primate tourism at the end of September 2020, citing that the benefits of reducing illegal entries into gorilla habitats outweighed the risk of infecting primates with COVID-19. They also observed that strict standard operating procedures (discussed earlier) and vaccines had significantly reduced the Covid-19 risk.
The reopening of Uganda’s gorilla parks in October 2020 brought hope to local communities. It contributed to a reduction in poaching and generated revenue to support law enforcement operations that protect the gorillas and other species.
Today, Internation NGOs have stepped in to support several community sustainability programs like Gorilla Conservation Coffee and CTPH’s ‘Ready to Grow’ Program.
Today, every gorilla trekking visitor to Uganda, in one way or another, contributes to a sustainable community program helping the people living around gorilla parks. It could be through paying for lodging, which employs a local, or eating a fresh vegetable meal at a lodge near a gorilla park. Gorilla conservation is one of the most successful community sustainability programs worldwide. It could be the single-most reason Uganda’s mountain gorillas survived Covid-19.
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