University of Exeter: Hands, face, space to protect great apes

Great ape numbers and habitats have declined rapidly in recent decades, and all species are classified as “endangered” or “critically endangered”.

Alongside hunting and deforestation, infectious diseases are a major threat – and genetic similarity with humans means great apes can catch some diseases from people.

This is especially true of respiratory viruses, so researchers say tourists should follow similar rules to those advised to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

The researchers have launched a website offering key information, and inviting tourists to make a pledge to protect great apes from disease.

They have also designed guide training material and educational posters that will be displayed at locations including airports, hotels and tourism sites, to ensure everyone involved in great ape tourism knows how to protect great apes from disease.

“Many tourists want to get really close to these wild animals, to take pictures with them or even touch them,” said Dr Kimberley Hockings, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“We want to change that mindset.

“People can still have a great experience while observing guidelines that protect the animals.”

Dr Hockings added: “It was clear to all of us great ape researchers that there was no consistency in disease prevention regulations between tourism sites.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to change that.”

The researchers ask tourists visiting great apes to:

– Check and follow disease prevention guidelines for the country they are travelling to.

– Postpone if they have any signs of illness, or have come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days.

– Wear a facemask, use hand sanitiser and wear clean shoes and clothes.

– Maintain a safe distance from the animals at all times.

Africa’s great apes are chimpanzees, bonobos, western gorillas and eastern gorillas (which includes mountain gorillas).

Respiratory viruses of human origin infect wild apes across Africa, sometimes lethally.

Previous research has identified outbreaks of such viruses among chimpanzees, while another study found that nearly every mountain gorilla group visited by humans in Rwanda experienced at least one outbreak of respiratory disease.

More than 1,000 people who have visited great ape tourism sites in Africa, or intend to do so, have completed a questionnaire created by the research team.

Survey participants showed a very high willingness to observe protective measures.

“We hope that tourists, tour companies and governments will take note and ensure these guidelines are followed,” Dr Hockings said.

The research team includes veterinarians, great ape disease experts and great ape conservation scientists, and the measures they suggest are endorsed by the great ape section of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group.

The team includes Kimberley Hockings and Chloe Chesney of the University of Exeter, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda, Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute and Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany, Aissa Regalla of the Institute for Biodiversity and Protected Areas in Guinea-Bissau, Amanda Webber of the University of the West of England and Ana Nuno of NOVA University Lisbon.

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