Within Taï National Park on the Ivory Coast of West Africa, the coronavirus is spreading. Confirmed cases are increasing rapidly and it is unknown how many more will become infected or how deadly the outcome will be. Worry abounds as these inhabitants of the park are special. They make up not part of the human population, but that of the rapidly declining chimpanzees.
Years before COVID-19 ever made headlines, the already-shrinking population of chimps in Africa became susceptible to yet another danger. A lesser-known form of coronavirus, distinct from COVID-19, infected this community of 33 chimpanzees between December 2016 and January 2017. After confirming that the virus was transmitted to the chimpanzees via close contact with human researchers, the primate conservation community was highly alarmed. Although this form of coronavirus was less infectious than COVID-19, conservationists became concerned that future viruses could have much deadlier effects.
The reverse—primates infecting humans with viral diseases—is well-known to occur. HIV is believed to have migrated from chimps to humans in the 1920s due to chimpanzees being hunted and eaten by humans. The possibility of chimpanzees and other great apes disappearing due to a global pandemic may seem improbable to most, but for conservationists involved in protecting humanity’s closest cousins, the risk has been known for some time. Humans are not the only species to suffer and die from pandemics; precautionary measures are also needed to protect nonhuman animals such as primates.
Since its contested beginnings within a wild animal market, COVID-19 has proven capable of infecting multiple species. Many animals apart from humans can carry the coronavirus, from bats to pangolins, an endangered mammal that may be the source of COVID-19. Nadia, the female Malayan tiger held at the Bronx Zoo, made headlines in early April when she became the first known nonhuman animal to contract COVID-19 in the United States.
COVID-19 is not the only viral outbreak to significantly impact multiple species—the avian flu led to humans culling over 400 million domesticated birds that were infected. The swine flu instigated the same outcome for a quarter of the world’s pigs. The Ebola virus has infected and killed likely thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas since the early 2000s, while chimpanzees alone have suffered from their own AIDs epidemic for decades. History repeatedly shows that many infectious diseases spread via close contact between human and nonhuman animals, often due to humans consuming and commodifying other species.
Proposed methods to mitigate the interspecies spread of zoonotic diseases have often been misguided and ineffective. Humans customarily attempt to eradicate the nonhuman animals carrying a zoonotic disease, rather than meaningfully limiting interspecies contact. The British badger cull in 2013 aimed to reduce the badger population in Somerset and Gloucestershire by 70 percent in order to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The cull was unsuccessful, and likely caused further spread of the disease as the badgers fled to new areas. Vampire bats in South America were eradicated in an attempt to prevent the transmission of rabies to humans; this measure proved just as ineffectual, as the poisons and explosives used failed to accurately target the infected bats. In the United States, deer are commonly culled as a method to reduce the spread of Lyme disease, despite the science showing that killing deer does not reduce humans’ risk of contracting the illness.
When an avian or swine flu arises amongst farmed animals, all the infected individuals are killed, despite experts stating that this lethal approach is ineffective. Vaccination is a more effective method to halt avian flu amongst domesticated birds, and culling is futile in stopping the spread of swine flus amongst pigs. Culling, even when effective in halting the proliferation of infectious disease, is inhumane and unethical. Viruses—COVID-19 included—only continue to “jump” to humans from other species because humans continue to exploit nonhuman animals. Culling other species as a “solution” to controlling the infectious diseases that inevitably arise is grossly unjust.
To reduce humans’ close contact with other animals, social distancing practices need to be extended to also protect wildlife, especially those species at high risk of contracting humans’ diseases. Many mammals have minuscule genetic differences compared with humans; primates, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, share 98 percent of their DNA with Homo sapiens. Given that tigers, like Nadia at the Bronx Zoo, have only 95 percent of the same DNA as humans, it becomes easy to conclude that our species’ closest cousins are highly susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
The best practice guidelines for health monitoring and disease control in great ape populations, as put forth by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, calls for limiting tourism and other forms of close contact with humans. These limits are vital to retain the gains made in great ape populations. Fortunately for the apes, the majority of great ape tourism sites are currently closed to enforce humans’ social distancing. Experts are recommending that additional measures be taken to ensure that poaching does not increase with the lack of tourist presence in parks and reserves, where high numbers of visitors often deter poachers. Strict social distancing demonstrably works to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst humans; the same strategy needs to be utilized to prevent the virus from spreading to other equally vulnerable species.
Great apes’ survival is already nearing a precipice due to poaching and loss of habitat. Infectious diseases push them even closer to that precipice. All populations of great apes are declining, except for mountain gorillas, whose rising numbers constitute hardwon gains. Populations as small as that of the Tapanuli orangutans, with only 800 individuals remaining, may not be able to recover from the effects of a virus spreading amongst them. Habitat encroachment, occurring via intensive agriculture and the construction of roads, further threatens primates’ survival. Chimpanzees have already disappeared from four African countries and are nearly extinct in others. The world’s great apes are vanishing, making them some of the most endangered species on the planet.
Pandemic or no pandemic, humans have a responsibility to protect our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. Our daily lives have been tremendously impacted by COVID-19, but as a species, humanity will continue on after the pandemic has passed. Leading experts warn that great apes’ futures may not be as secure if they are infected by the same virus—especially since humans often cull other species to contain the spread of disease. Problems that the world’s inhabitants faced before COVID-19’s emergence will still remain after the pandemic subsides; continuing conservation efforts amidst the crisis thus remains necessary and just as urgent.
In a recent letter to the research journal Nature, leading scientists urge governments, conservationists, and researchers to do everything possible to protect great apes from COVID-19 “while taking care not to interfere with work to save human lives.” Great apes, as an important part of an interconnected ecological network, disseminate seeds and help to regenerate tropical forests. Hundreds of other plant and animal species depend on their existence. Maintaining great ape populations helps to maintain healthy ecosystems, which, in turn, helps to combat the negative effects of climate change. Protecting other beings, human and nonhuman alike, during these uncertain times may prevent endangered populations from declining even further.
COVID-19 did not originate in humans, nor is it infecting just our species. The virus is harming other creatures while continuing to wreak havoc in our own societies. Thwarted conservation efforts or inadequate protection measures for nonhuman animals could amount to devastating blows to endangered mammals such as the great apes; such impacts would be felt long after the pandemic subsides. Extinction is an all-too-real possibility for some of these primates. Humanity will survive and can either emerge from COVID-19 stronger and with a greater understanding of the connection between humans and other species, or we can linger on after the crisis having lost some of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom.
Rachel is a writer and photographer based in New Zealand.