There are now billions of humans living on every corner of the planet, but it wasn’t always this way. More than 10,000 years ago, there may well have been more apes than humans. Now, humans utterly dominate the planet, leaving less and less room and resources for wild animals like the great apes. Reports show that four of the great apes - eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan, Sumatran orangutan - are now listed as critically endangered. Meanwhile, the chimpanzee and bonobo are listed as endangered.
A report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) showed that the eastern gorilla populations declined by more than 70% in 20 years, with fewer than 5,000 still existing. One subspecies of eastern gorillas, Grauer's gorilla, has lost 77% of its population since 1994, declining from 16,900 individuals to just 3,800 in 2015. Another subspecies of eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla, is faring better and has increased in number to around 880 individuals.
“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing. We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realize just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating. Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it. It is our responsibility to enhance our efforts to turn the tide and protect the future of our planet,” Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General, said.
The orangutan, Asia’s only great ape, is also in deep trouble. Its last remaining strongholds in the rainforests of Sumatra (Indonesia) and the island of Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia) are being destroyed by widespread forest fires, illegal logging, and proliferation of palm oil plantations. According to WWF, an international non-governmental organization, some of the threats great apes face every day include rapid expansion of extractive industries and industrial agriculture, growing human populations, widespread lack of law enforcement and corruption in the judicial process.
“The current reality of great ape populations is more of a tragedy than an action thriller. If we as humans can’t protect our nearest living relatives, then we’ve failed as a species,” Richard Carroll, the head of WWF’s Africa program and a gorilla expert, said.
Great Ape Conservation Efforts
In 2016, the WWF, IUCN, Wildlife Conservation Society and partners released a new conservation plan for great apes: the regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Western Lowland Gorillas and Central Chimpanzees 2015-2025. This is after conservationists called for additional measures that would focus on improved law enforcement, more effective management of great ape habitat outside of protected areas, better national land-use planning and conservation advocacy.
The plan focuses on 18 priority landscapes that cover half the geographic range of western lowland gorillas and central chimpanzees, harboring over three-quarters of the great apes remaining in the region. “Now bold steps are needed to ensure that existing wildlife laws are upheld and that weak governance, which results in widespread impunity for wildlife traffickers, is eliminated, to give great apes the opportunity to survive and thrive,” David Greer, WWF’s Great Apes Programme Manager, said.
However, these efforts might just be in vain as COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread across the world. COVID-19 is a new form of coronavirus that has infected more than one million people and killed over 52,000 people. The most affected country as of current writing is the US with 244,190 cases, followed by Italy (115,242), Spain (112,065), Germany (84,794), and China (81,589).
How Coronavirus Can Affect Great Apes
Great apes have been established as humans’ closest living relatives, sharing about 98% of human DNA. This means that they are susceptible to catching respiratory diseases from people. Experts are now worried that COVID-19 could pass from humans to great apes. "The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical situation for humans, our health and our economies. It's also a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction,” Thomas Gillespie from Emory University said.
Recently, 27 conservation experts from the Great Ape Health Consortium urged all great ape tourism to be suspended and field research be reduced through a letter. This aims to protect already vulnerable species from contracting COVID-19. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, Virunga National Park in the Congo, which is home to a third of the world's mountain gorillas, is closed to human visitors until June 1, while Rwanda is also closing three parks home to gorillas and chimpanzees to tourists and researchers.
"We must remain steadfast in safeguarding our population of this endangered species," Virunga National Park said in a press release.
While there’s still no evidence that great apes are susceptible to COVID-19, it was proven that wild chimpanzees were infected with human coronavirus OC43 in Côte d’Ivoire. Also, great apes can be infected with many other human respiratory pathogens. For instance, Ebola has led to mortality rates of up to 95% in gorillas. According to the UN Environment, the global champion for the environment with programmes focusing on sustainable development, climate, biodiversity and more, researchers said that some of those populations will need more than 130 years to recover.
“There would also be economic and livelihood losses. Great ape tourism is an important source of employment, generates income for national governments and local communities, and produces the funds required to sustain conservation activities,” Johannes Refisch, a UN Programme Manager and Coordinator, said.
Recently, the International Union for Nature’s Primate Specialist Group/Section on Great Apes and the Wildlife Health Specialist Group encouraged people to adhere with "Best-Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations” to reduce the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus to great apes. According to Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture and history, some of the recommendations include wearing clean clothing and disinfecting footwear before going anywhere near the animals.
“We hope for the best but should prepare for the worst and critically consider the impact of our activities on these endangered species,” the conservation experts said.