The Virunga National Park in Congo has closed its doors to tourists amid fears the coronavirus pandemic is putting one of human life’s closest evolutionary species at risk. Africa’s first national park was established in 1925 and according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. The wildlife park has taken advice from scientific experts and warned the primates can be “susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus”.
According to the WWF gorillas can contract human diseases such as the common cold.
Primates experience more severe symptoms and can even die from the flu.
Humans share as much as 98 percent of DNA with gorillas.
In 2009 Scientists at Columbia University in New York found up to one-in-five deaths in mountain gorillas are caused by respiratory infections.
An outbreak in Rwanda infected 11 out of a group of 12 gorillas – killing an adult female and a male infant.
Medical examinations found traces of human metapneumovirus (hMPV) – a type of cold transmitted during the winter months.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of the Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, said “’every possible effort must be made” to protect mountain gorillas from COVID-19.
Ms Kahumbu said: “We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases.
“If anyone has a cold or a 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.”
Authorities around the world have advised people to stay two metres away one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The coronavirus has infected more than 300,000 people globally and killing more than 14,000 others.
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka who works for Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda said existing distancing measures to protect wildlife was not being followed by visitors.
She said: “What the research found is that the seven-metre rule was broken almost all the time – around 98 per cent of the time.
“But what was interesting is that 60 per cent of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40 per cent of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”
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According to WWF estimates there are around 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild.
As their name suggests they are typically found at mountainous ranges at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet.
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