A study by researchers at Oxford Brookes University shows that tourists may be spreading COVID-19 to gorillas in the wild. The study was carried out through an analysis of about 1,000 photos from Instagram posts. The researchers noted that tourists were taking photos too close to gorillas, a situation that may lead to disease transmission. Most of the photos analyzed were from people visiting mountain gorillas in East Africa.
“The risk of disease transmission between visitors and gorillas is very concerning,” said Gaspard Van Hamme, lead author and Oxford Brookes University Primate Conservation alumnus. “It is vital that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure gorilla trekking practices do not further threaten these already imperiled great apes.”
The researchers’ concerns draw from the fact that apes have been infected by the virus from humans before. In January, gorillas at the San Diego Zoo were infected with the virus, which was passed on from their caretakers.
Magdalena Svensson, biology lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, noted that most tourists do not wear masks when interacting with the animals.
“In the photos we analyzed, we found that face masks were rarely worn by tourists visiting gorillas, and that brings the potential for disease transmission between people and the gorillas they visit,” Svensson said. “With people all over the world getting more used to wearing face masks we have hope that in the future wearing face masks will become common practice in gorilla trekking.”
Mountain gorillas are native to East Africa, with the largest population in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Their population had been on a downward trend due to hunting and other human activities. In recent years, legislation and strict policies have seen the numbers start to climb. Today, there are 1,063 gorillas in the region that must be protected.
According to Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Conservation Through Public Health, Uganda, the new study shows the need for responsibility from tourists.
“This research provides a valuable perspective on how much tourists are willing to share their too-close encounters with mountain gorillas through Instagram, which creates expectations for future tourists,” Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka said. “It highlights a great need for responsible tourism to provide adequate protection while minimizing disease transmission, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Image via Thomas Fuhrmann