Scientists move to protect gorillas, Iowa’s bonobos from COVID-19

Two mountain gorillas wait out a rain in Rwanda's Virunga Mountains in 2009. (Photo by Perry Beeman/International Reporting Project)

Ever since I visited Rwanda’s mountain gorillas in 2009 and started following a bonobo research center in Des Moines, I’ve cringed any time there is a coronvirus outbreak.

And not just because it’s a health threat to people all over the globe.

Great apes are susceptible to human respiratory illnesses, whether they are mountain gorillas in Rwanda or bonobos at the Ape Initiative in Des Moines or in their homeland of Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.

COVID-19 has caused changes from the Virunga Mountains of central Africa, home to the last remaining 1,000 mountain gorillas, to the Ape Initiative, a river-bottom research center in southeast Des Moines where a group of bonobos lives. The Des Moines center focuses on cognitive research and houses some of the most English-proficient great apes in the world.

The Ape Initiative has split its staff into three teams, two of which have been isolating themselves since well before the rest of us did, said Jared Taglialatela, presidident and director.

Public visits canceled

The facility has no public visiting hours. School group visits have been postponed, and classes are canceled anyway. Researchers are still allowed in.

All staff and researchers wear masks and gloves around the bonobos, Taglialatela said. That’s a standing health measure.

The apes will still be allowed outside because no one but staff members would be with them, and they will be wearing masks and gloves. There is no apparent threat from the grounds, Taglialatela said.

The concern for apes’ health extends to Africa. Scientists often fret about mountain gorillas picking up respiratory illnesses from humans, so it’s no surprise they are calling for restrictions to protect the great apes from COVID-19.

The Associated Press this week reported that scientists in Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda have seen many tourists postpone trips or ask for refunds due to the outbreak.

There has been talk of requiring people to wear masks around the gorillas, and some authorities have banned visits for now.

Gorilla treks postponed

Congo and Rwanda have barred visitors during the outbreak on the advice of scientists. Rwanda postponed research activities, too, AP reported.

In normal times, the countries require tourists who visit the gorillas in small groups to stay about 25 feet away from the gorillas. There are only 1,000 mountain gorillas left and human disease is a prime threat, along with poaching. The primates are found in the Virunga Mountains.

Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka teamed with Ohio University in a study that found the efforts to protect the gorillas from human disease are largely ineffective, AP reported.

Virtually every visit breaks the rules, 60% of the time when human visitors get too close, and 40% of the time when the gorillas move too close to the visitors.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

I can attest to the second part of that. When I visited the gorillas in Rwanda as part of an International Reporting Project fellowship while I was working at The Des Moines Register, our group was charged a couple of times by the younger gorillas. A guide who seemed to have an uncanny ability to utter the sounds gorillas use to say “get away” suggested in gorilla-ese that the gorillas stop and go along their way. They did. And we exhaled.

But our close proximity to the gorillas also came because the guides led us close to them. We were in dense forest, and were told to stick to the trail. Several of the gorillas were only feet away, hunkered down because it had been raining. We routinely moved to give them some distance.

These were “habituated” gorillas, meaning they are used to having humans around. That was a good thing. Because gorillas could do some serious damage if they were unimpressed by their guests.

The rule on keeping a safe distance from the gorillas was broken almost every time a group of tourists visited, the study found, Kalema-Zikusoka told AP.

“What the research found is that the 7-meter rule was broken almost all the time … like 98% of the time,” she said. “But what was interesting is that 60% of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40% of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”

Vital tourism takes a hit; will poaching increase?

Some conservationists are worried that the loss of tourism revenues will mean less protection against poachers, a chronic threat in central Africa. A permit to see the gorillas costs $600 in Uganda and $1,500 in Rwanda. That’s for one hour of viewing, a limit meant to protect the gorilla’s health.

Tourism is Rwanda’s biggest business.

“It’s really a shame,” said Taglialatela, the Des Moines ape researcher. “Tourism brings in money, but they have to take these actions to project both the apes, and humans” who could be infected on planes, at hotels, or elsewhere.