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With the ongoing panic about coronavirus spreading rapidly among humans, conservationists have warned about an impending danger as discovery shows that Africa’s mountain gorillas are vulnerable to the coronavirus plague.

African countries such as Congo, Rwanda and Uganda rely heavily on the tourism sector, as a means of generating revenue and foreign currency. One of the reasons why it makes them a dwelling place for over 1000 mountain gorillas. As such, the recent COVID-19 outbreak has left the tourism sector on shaky grounds.

Research by the World Wide Fund for Nature shows that mountain gorillas are prone to some respiratory illnesses that also affects humans. A gorilla could die from having a common cold, this is why tourists tracking gorillas are not normally permitted to get too close.

Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to about a third of the world’s mountain gorillas, is barring visitors until June 1, citing “advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus.”

Following in the footsteps of neighbouring countries, Rwanda is also temporarily shutting down tourism and research activities in three national parks that are home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

Although Uganda has not announced a shutdown of gorilla tourism, the country is suffering from the impact of the virus as there is almost no business amid the outbreak.  Rwanda and Uganda spoke of how there’s “hardly any business” as tourists postpone visits or seek refunds.

Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group Wildlife Direct, told The Associated Press that “every possible effort must be made” to protect mountain gorillas because so few are left in the wild.

“We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases,” she said. “If anyone has a cold or flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas. With coronavirus having such a long time of no symptoms in some cases, it means that we could actually put those gorillas at risk.”

Revenue generated through tourism is very important for the government of these African countries, as the money generated is used in developing the country and investing in anti-poaching activities. Depleting revenue could make primates vulnerable to poaching attacks. A gorilla tracking permit costs up to $600 in Uganda, and thousands of tourists pay each year. A similar permit costs upward of $1,000 in Rwanda.

Ugandan conservationist, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with Conservation Through Public Health states that a study published this year by her group and Ohio University revealed that measures in place to protect gorillas from humans are not effective in practice.

The rule on keeping a safe distance from the gorillas was broken almost every time a group of tourists visited, she said: “What the research found is that the 7-meter rule was broken almost all the time 98 percent of the time.”

“But what was interesting is that 60 percent of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40 percent of the time it was the gorillas who broke it,” she added.

Close interaction may not be completely prevented, but one measure that could potentially improve safety is requiring tourists to wear masks at all times.

It is crucial that the governments of potentially affected countries take extra precautions in curbing the spread of COVID-19. While trying to protect humans, the government should also have primitive animals in mind. Failure to do so can lead to an outbreak of the virus which could totally wipe out the species and create a financial gap in the economy.

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