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Coronavirus: Gorillas and orangutans on lockdown to avoid catching Covid-19 from humans

Sanctuaries for great apes including for gorillas and orangutans are among those which have closed amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

The closures aren’t only to protect humans visiting in groups, but also for the animals themselves, which may be vulnerable to the virus.

Countries home to gorillas including Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have all temporarily suspended gorilla tourism and severely restricted access to the parks, according to the organisation Gorilla Doctors, which provides veterinary care in these countries.

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Furthermore, all staff must now wear masks during health checks of the primates, all people entering parks must have their temperatures checked, and boots must be disinfected. 

Though a tiger in captivity in New York tested positive for Covid-19, the disease is not known to have spread to gorillas.

In a social media post, Gorilla Doctors said: “Our work continues in the face of Covid-19. Even with extraordinary lockdown measures in place, the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo recognise the critical importance of our gorilla health monitoring. 

“Our veterinary staff have received special permission to perform their work in spite of country-wide travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders to fight the spread of Covid-19.”

Sanctuaries for orangutans in Borneo have also been closed to protect the endangered animals from the outbreak.

Professor of primate biology Serge Wich, of John Moores University Liverpool, told The Independent the risks differed somewhat for orangutans and gorillas.

Asked about gorillas in central African countries he said: “Gorillas are largely terrestrial in those countries and often come in relative close contact with tourists and researchers. 

“At present tourism has been halted to reduce risk. Researchers have clear protocols to maintain distance which are part of their general procedures. This should all help to reduce risk of transmission. But of course there are also other people entering these forests to collect wood, etc, so that still poses a risk as well.”

“Wild orangutans are largely arboreal so their distance is usually quite large to researchers. But there are several sanctuaries where large numbers of orangutans are kept. At those locations there are also protocols in place to reduce risk. 

“There are also other areas where great apes can come into contact with people such as plantations, infrastructure development. Risks in such places are largely not known. Nor are there general protocols in place in all such areas.”

He also said falls in tourism due to the virus could eventually impact protections for great apes.

“It could lead to a shortfall for national park authorities but could also have a negative impact on local communities that benefit from tourism as well as owners of hotels and lodges. If those people need to look for alternative sources of income that could increase risk.

“In general a reduction of income due to a lack or reduction of tourism could lead to a decrease in patrols. But countries with great apes are committed to their protection so I trust they will do their utmost to continue protecting them and that is also what we hear from the field where essential patrols seem to continue even under these difficult circumstances. But at some stage financial support might be needed to continue this.”

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