For Africa’s great apes, a post-pandemic future looks beyond tourism

  • From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, primatologists assumed great apes would be susceptible to the virus and took measures to avoid transmission to captive and wild populations.
  • Precautionary measures like closing parks and sanctuaries to visitors have so far prevented an outbreak in wild apes, but have had a massive impact on the ability of conservation groups and government agencies to fund themselves via tourism.
  • A year into the pandemic, the revenue shortfall is prompting a serious rethink of funding models for ape conservation that don’t rely on tourism.

On Jan. 11 this year, something happened that primatologists had both feared and expected: two western lowland gorillas at San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Right from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts had assumed great apes would be susceptible to the virus. IUCN great ape specialists sent out a document in March 2020 to advise on the risk, and most great ape tourism sites closed immediately.

People were nervous; great ape conservation heavily depends on tourism revenue. What no one knew then was how long the pandemic would last. Now, more than a year on, how has the global shutdown affected great ape conservation in Africa?

“COVID affected every single aspect of what we do,” says Karen Kemp, communications director of U.S.-based Friends of Bonobos, which manages fundraising and marketing for the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last year, a planned release of bonobos (Pan paniscus) into the wild was delayed due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Talks of starting a bonobo trekking industry stalled. Outreach programs were put on hold, though the organization and its local partners have since been able to resume conservation education, recently reaching 1,000 children through a series of school visits. The small amount of income from visiting researchers also fell away, and with it, of course, a lack of new bonobo research over the past year. And as its income dropped substantially, the sanctuary received more bonobo babies than in the last five years combined — possibly due to an increase in bushmeat hunting due to pandemic hardship, or possibly as a success of its outreach work.

A juvenile bonobo reclines on atop an adult. Females can go six years between births, and young bonobos stay close to their mothers for the first years of their lives. Image by pelican via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Reducing the risk

Overall, great ape researchers were well-prepared for the pandemic in terms of health and safety. They already knew the risks of great apes catching human diseases, so masks and distancing have long been a standard when researching wild primates.

In February 2020, Gorilla Doctors, a veterinary nonprofit dedicated to the health and conservation of mountain (Gorilla beringei beringei) and eastern lowland, or Grauer’s (G. b. graueri) gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, implemented daily temperature checks for staff, a limit of a single person per vehicle, and hand and boot sanitizing on park entry. Mask-wearing was made mandatory at all times in the parks.

In Uganda and Rwanda, one small silver lining of the pandemic may be the adoption of mask-wearing, where, unlike at most other great ape sites, it was not previously required for tourists. Since tourism resumed, masks have been mandatory for visitors in both countries.

Increasing the distance between people and gorillas to 10 meters (33 feet), up from the previous 7 m (23 ft), did “provide some challenges for our veterinarians who rely on visual health assessments to monitor for signs of illness or injury,” says Kirsten Gilardi, Gorilla Doctors’ executive director and chief veterinary officer. “They had to rely more on their cameras and zoom lenses to review wounds, which was always tricky in dense vegetation.”

Gorilla Doctors also included a SARS-CoV-2 screening when testing sick gorillas’ fecal samples. To date, no gorilla has tested positive.

If that does happen, it may be difficult to contain an outbreak in the wild, especially in gorillas that live in close groups. It’s also “really hard to stop one gorilla transferring from one group to another,” says Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, veterinarian and founder of Ugandan nonprofit Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

The Lola ya Bonobo team is used to protecting its wards against respiratory diseases, with annual flu outbreaks occasionally leading to sanctuary closures. The rescued babies require close care and rely on their surrogate (human) mothers. So when the pandemic broke out, the sanctuary brought around 20 staff members permanently on site for five months.

“The idea of potentially wiping out the entire population of the sanctuary was just not one we wanted to think about,” Kemp says. Since the sanctuary reopened in August last year, guests must wear a mask and visor, and groups are capped at 10.

A group of eco-tourists hikes through Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Gorilla trekking has become a major source of revenue for Rwanda, and the closure of parks due to the pandemic has been an economic shock. Photo by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Tourism takes a hit

In parks such as Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, the mountain gorilla trekking industry has been extremely successful. As well as bringing income to rural areas, the safeguarding of their habitat has also enabled the mountain gorilla population to grow; in 2018, the subspecies’ conservation status improved from critically endangered to endangered.

When tourism stopped, the effects were felt almost immediately.

“The first five months were disastrous,” says Johannes Refisch, coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Great Apes Survival Partnership. In Rwanda, where permits cost $1,500 per international tourist, Refisch says there was a loss of $120,000 a day from those fees alone. And that’s not considering transfers, accommodation, guiding and porter services, tipping, or the souvenirs tourists might buy.

For a great many people, that loss of income translated very quickly into hunger, which in turn led to more subsistence poaching. In 2020, a gorilla was killed for the first time in nearly 10 years in Uganda, after poachers accidentally crossed paths with a silverback in Bwindi. There isn’t enough data to accurately gauge how much subsistence poaching has increased across the continent, but experts agree that it likely has increased around great ape protected sites, sometimes enabled by reduced law enforcement at sites with less funding.

Uganda is still only seeing 10% of its usual tourism revenue, says Kalema-Zikusoka. Its wildlife authority, usually fully sustained by tourism income, has had to turn to NGOs to fund activities such as security patrols in the parks. To ensure that people can at least eat and won’t fall back on subsistence poaching, CTPH started a Ready to Grow program that has already delivered fast-growing seedlings to 1,000 households around national parks.

Sanctuaries that rely on tourism have been heavily affected, too. In Kenya, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, part of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, closed to visitors and researchers for a year to avoid infection. The closure and the lack of tourists “led to severe loss of revenue, up to 85%,” says head of conservation Samuel Mutisya. As a result, salaries were cut and some non-essential operating costs were suspended.

The key to safely resuming tourism is vaccines. CTPH is encouraging the wildlife authority in Uganda to adopt mandatory vaccines for tourists, once a greater proportion of the world has been vaccinated.

Martha Robbins, head of the gorilla research group at the Max Planck Institute, agrees with a vaccine requirement. “To enter a lot of African countries you need to show a yellow fever…

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