National parks in Rwanda and Congo are temporarily shutting their doors to tourists and researchers to protect Africa’s endangered chimpanzees and mountain gorillas from contracting coronavirus.
Virunga – Africa’s oldest national park – in the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to around one-third of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. There are just over 1,000 left globally. Following advice from scientific experts that primates are probably susceptible to complications arising from the Covid-19 virus, Virunga will bar visitors until 1 June.
“Human origin diseases are a persistent threat to mountain gorillas, from common colds to coronavirus,” Cath Lawson, Africa conservation manager at the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF) told The Independent.
“It is not yet known for sure if non-human great apes are susceptible to the Sars CoV-2 virus which causes the disease Covid-19 in humans but they are susceptible to infection with other human respiratory illnesses so we assume that they are susceptible and action is being taken on that basis,” said Ms Lawson.
In neighbouring Rwanda, tourism and research activities have also been temporarily stopped in three national parks that are home to primates.
Rwanda has halted visits to Volcanoes, Gishwati-Mukura and Nyungwe parks. The country’s fourth national park, Akagera, which is not home to primates, will remain open. Government officials are monitoring the park entry gate so visitors are screened and temperatures checked before entry.
But the lockdown overall will have a major impact on the sustainability of these parks as safari and gorilla tracking permits make up the bulk of their revenues, conservationists warn. In the DRC a permit can cost up to $400 (£348), while in Rwanda it can fetch as much as $1,500 (£1,170).
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park alone earned $19.2m (£16.4m) in revenue in 2018, according to latest data from the Rwanda Development Board.
Dave Wilson, head of commercial development at African Parks which runs Akagera in Rwanda said despite the park remaining open there is almost no footfall due to travel restrictions.
“We have to maintain a frontline of defence [for the park’s wildlife] and we are going to experience even more pressure as job layoffs happen,” he said via telephone. “We are seeing an almost total collapse of the tourism industry and that has huge implications … certainly in the next couple of weeks we are going to be without visitors at all.”
Rwanda has closed its borders, except for goods, cargo and returning citizens. Many African countries have taken similar steps. Despite the drop in tourist numbers, wildlife still need human protection. Akakegra is home to rhinos and lions that are threatened by trafficking and hunting.
“Rhino horn, elephant ivory and bush meat poaching those are the sorts of by-products of the encroachments that we are starting to see,” said Mr Wilson. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we are maintaining that protected area.”
But contingency plans to shield parks from sustainability issues are being developed and implemented according to WWF.
“Right now, minimising human-mountain gorilla interaction, and the opportunity for disease transmission, is the priority,” said Ms Lawson. “Only essential monitoring is happening, with application of best practice approaches such as maintaining 10 metres distances and wearing a face mask.”
In 2018, the mountain gorilla subspecies was reclassified from critically endangered to endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to population growths.
“These gains,” said Ms Lawson, “could be quickly reversed by the introduction of disease”.