Before the lockdown was instituted in Rwanda, visits and research activities in three national parks were suspended amid fears of exposing primates to the novel coronavirus.
"While it is still unknown if wild animals can contract COVID- 19, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are known to be susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens." Statement from the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) reads in part.
According to Johannes Refisch, Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) project coordinator, humans and great apes can transmit diseases to each other. This is possible because of our shared genetic fabric.
In the early 1980s, the number of gorillas residing in the Virunga Massif had dropped to 242. Legendary primatologist Dian Fossey warned that gorillas would be extinct by 2,000 if urgent measures to step up conservation efforts wouldn’t be taken.
Poaching was rampant. Animals were constantly attacked and killed or sold in the black market. Irresponsible human interference posed a serious threat to the survival of the remaining gorillas.
The past two decades have seen effective conservation campaigns run by governments and stakeholders. Enforcement of rules and creation of awareness among members of the communities surrounding the national parks have ultimately reversed the situation and saved the gorillas. There are now more than 1,000 mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.
The rebounding numbers tell a rare conservation success story. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated the status of mountain gorillas from "critically endangered" to "endangered," which is a promising designation.
The outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus raised fresh concerns among policy makers and conservation groups. At the Volcanoes National Park, social distancing between gorillas and tourists had always been observed but the current pandemic prompted the government to act even before the hard decision to shutdown everything else was made.
There is evidence that gorillas can contract sinusitis, influenza, pneumonia and other human diseases. Can they contract the coronavirus? This virus is new. We don’t have adequate study findings to answer that question yet but considering the nature of the disease and the similarities between our respiratory systems, the answer is most likely a sound yes.