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When people take precautions in pandemic, gorillas breathe easier

 

By Emily Anthes

© The New York Times Co.

The mountain gorillas that live in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park have frequent encounters with humans. On any given day, the animals might come across smartphone-toting tourists, fecal-sampleswiping biologists or antibiotic-administering veterinarians.

So when the coronavirus started spreading around the world in early 2020, experts worried that people might unwittingly pass the virus to the endangered apes, which are known to be vulnerable to a variety of human pathogens.

“In the past, other human viruses have caused respiratory illness in the gorillas,” said Dr. Kirsten Gilardi, executive director of Gorilla Doctors, an international team of veterinarians that provides care for wild gorillas.

“We were on pins and needles wondering, OK, if this virus gets into the mountain gorillas, what’s it going to do?” Gilardi said.

In March 2020, to safeguard the animals, Rwanda temporarily closed Volcanoes National Park. When the park reopened a few months later, it had strict new precautions in place, including requiring tourists and researchers to wear masks and keep their distance from the gorillas. These rules, plus a general drop-off in tourism, mean that the park’s gorillas have had relatively few close encounters with humans during the pandemic, Gilardi said.

And so far, there have been no signs of the coronavirus among the gorillas. But in trying to control an extraordinary health threat, officials may have also alleviated a more everyday one: the routine transmission of respiratory diseases from humans to great apes. Since March 2020, the number of outbreaks of respiratory illness among the park’s gorillas has fallen to 1.6 a year, on average, from 5.4.

The findings suggest that even after the pandemic wanes, stricter controls may be needed to help protect endangered apes from catching diseases from people, scientists said.

 

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