Covid-19: A litmus test for wildlife conservation

Saturday March 28 2020

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola District has been closed to the public to protect the endangered species from catching the deadly Covid-19. PHOTO BY ERIC NTALUMBWA.

The buzzing of a speed boat echoes in the high levels of the lake; the vessel cuts through the blue waters of Lake Victoria. Twenty three kilometres Southwest of Entebbe is Ngamba, a laid-back chimpanzee civility, on a sun-splashed lush green forested island, perched on 100 acres.

The cruise is memorable, unfortunately the destination is closed to the public. Not only has the outbreak of Covid-19 affected human lives, it poses a threat to wildlife.

Ngamba Island closed
In a statement issued by Chimpanzee Trust, which manages Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the executive director, Dr Joshua Rukundo, says although the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) affects humans, it can potentially affect many other beings, especially primates.

“The risk to already highly endangered and vulnerable populations of apes is enormous. Two-thirds of human infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), have been found to originate from wildlife, and the vast majority of human diseases also affect animals.” He says since so much is unknown currently about the pathogenicity of the SARS-Cov-2 virus to great apes, the prevention of any potential pathogen spread between humans and great apes is critical.

“There is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. At this point. It is safer to assume that great apes, including the chimpanzee in our care, are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 Infection,” Rukundo warns.

Rhinos at risk
Relatedly, early this week, the executive director of Rhino Fund Uganda (RFU), Angella Genade, announced that Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola District has been closed to the public until further notice. Drastic measures were highlighted in a statement to protect the endangered species.


“The sanctuary is on a lockdown and all staff that have remained on site will not be allowed to leave. Should a staff member leave the sanctuary, they will not be allowed back inside,” she warned. Ziwa is currently home to 30 southern white rhinos and four more are expected between August and December 2020.

Covid-19 affects chimpanzees
According to reports from Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), a resource centre for global scientific research on primates and topical forest ecology, Covid-19 could easily spread to chimpanzees, man’s closest cousin since they share 98.7 per cent of their DNA.

Caroline Asiimwe, a veterinary doctor at Budongo Forest, Masindi District, says respiratory infections have been the biggest threat to chimpanzee conservation in the Albertine Rift, with a high morbidity and case fatality rate recorded in some chimpanzee communities.

Adult males at risk
“Given that humans and chimpanzees are related both genetically and physiologically, sharing of pathogens is inevitable, especially where there is close contact or interaction. Incidentally, chimpanzees are naive to these infections and so have no prior immunity, making the magnitude of clinical manifestation severe. Adult males are the most affected.”

Asiimwe further explains that there are two types of respiratory infections; Lower Respiratory Infections (LRI) and Upper Respiratory Infections (URI).
“The LRIs, caused mainly by bacteria, are more deadly such as pneumonia, bronchitis and tuberclosis.

The URIs on the other hand, are often causes by viruses and they include influenza and common colds. Symptoms of URIs lasts three to 14 days. If symptoms persist beyond 14 days, alternative diagnosis is recommended, for example LRT, sinusitis, or allergies.”

Measures to protect wild great apes
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Species Survival Commission (SSC), Wildlife Health Specialist Group and the Primate Specialist Group section on great apes assert that there is no more effective measure for prevention of the introduction of SARS CoV-2.

However, there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infections spread by human respiratory pathogens (organisms that cause disease).
They strongly recommend that visitations to great ape by humans are reduced to the minimum (time spent near great apes, number of people) to ensure the safety and health monitoring for the apes.

Rules instituted
For those essential staff, ape visitation rules need to be enforced at all sites. “A distance of at least seven metres from apes should be maintained at all times. However, 10 metres is strongly advised in this current situation.”

He adds: “Assurance that no person (park staff, researcher or tourist), who is clinically ill, or who has been in contact with an ill person in the preceding 14 days, is allowed to visit the apes such as the mountain gorilla and the chimpanzees.”

Primate tourism suspended
Following the scientific guidelines, outbreak of Covid-19, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has assessed the current situation and suspended primate tourism and research in all the protected areas, until April 30, 2020.

In a statement issued by the executive director, Sam Mwandha, other activities such as filming of primates have also been halted until the same date.

Protective equipment
“Trackers will be provided with necessary personal protective equipment to avoid passing on of any possible infection to the primates.

“UWA has relaxed the rescheduling of gorilla and chimpanzee tracking; tour operators are allowed to reschedule tracking permits for a maximum of two times until March 31, 2022,” he says.

He adds: “This offer is valid even for those who booked with 30 per cent down payment. This measure is intended to give tour operators and tourists an opportunity to avoid cancellations of trips that have been already booked.” According to the UWA conservation tariff and fees 2020-2022, a Gorilla permit for a foreign non-resident costs Shs2.8m.

Entebbe Zoo faces hardships
With the coronavirus lockdown, Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) is facing hardships in feeding more than 250 animal species, including primates, reptiles, lions, cheetahs, buffaloes, elephants, among others.

The executive director of UWEC, Dr James Musinguzi, says management is taking extra measures towards animal, visitors and staff welfare in these hard times.
He says: “We have put in place sanitisers at every exhibit, hand washing facilities throughout the centre, temperature guns, enhanced our standard operating procedures and protocols to ensure bio-safety and bio-security.”

Musinguzi, who also doubles as the president of the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), adds that the animal keepers and veterinary doctors are making rounds on a daily basis.

Personal protective equipment
“We have equipped them with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves, gumboots, aprons, overalls, among others and advised them to use them appropriately.”

He says: “For now, the centre has suspended any animal interaction activity. Away from the animal enclosures, we are urging staff to follow Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation guidelines, such as practicing physical distancing.”

In addition, David Musingo, the manager of information and education at the zoo, notes that the health of the animal keepers, their families and the animals is more important than ever before.

“We disinfect the centre twice a day and follow the guidelines of PAAZA and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), a global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums.”

Coronavirus and wildlife
The first human cases of coronavirus were linked to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.

Researchers are looking into the possibility that another animal was infected by a bat before being traded at the market and, in turn, infecting humans. Some publishers have suggested a snake, a turtle or a pangolin — a scaly ant-eater used in traditional Chinese medicines.

Ban wildlife trade
This has prompted wildlife campaigners to urge China to apply a permanent ban on the wildlife trade, following the coronavirus outbreak.

Much as China put a temporary ban on the trade in wildlife as a measure to control the spread of coronavirus, conservationists do not consider the move to be satisfactory.

Their argument is that in addition to protecting human health, a permanent ban would be a vital step in the effort to end the illegal trading of wildlife, considering that more than 70 per cent of emerging infections in humans are estimated to have come from animals, particularly wild animals.

World animal protection reacts
According to the World Animal Protection, snakes sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China were originally suspected as a potential source of Covid-19.

However, even if snakes are not to blame with respect to Covid-19, species such as bats, civets and primates are higher up the human health list of concern, when considering their role in earlier epidemics such as SARs in 2002 and Ebola in 2013.

In a recent media interview, Edith Kabesiime, the campaign manager at World Animal Protection-Africa, noted that China banned the consumption of land based wild animals due to Covid-19.

Since then, numerous countries have followed suit, but more needs to be done for wild animals used for non-edible purposes, such as exotic pets and traditional medicine.

Economic effects
Covid-19 has caused a temporary shutdown on tourism activities such as gorilla tracking, chimpanzee viewing, rhino tracking, game viewing and lodging, devastating impact on the sustainability of conservation projects notwithstanding.

Wildlife managers in Uganda admit it is a difficult decision to send staff home, halt eco-tourism activities, knowing it has profound economic effects. Gorilla tracking and chimpanzee tracking are among Uganda Wildlife Authority’s most lucrative activities, fetching Shs2.4m and Shs583,800 respectively from every foreign non-resident, but set to increase simultaneously, effective July 1, 2020.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of this week, Ngamba Island had registered at least 98 day trip cancellations, in a period of two weeks. Irene Atuhaire, the reservations manager, says: “All the bookings were from foreign non-residents, who expected to spend at least Shs342,500 per head, were camcelled and there are likely to be more cancellations.”
The situation is not any different from UWEC, which has suspended its special programmes such as Behind-the-scenes, Volunteer, and study tours.

If I had to visit top primate destinations...

...I would definitely go to...

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Located 23km southeast of Entebbe in Lake Victoria, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, or ‘Chimp Island’, is home to more than 50 orphaned or rescued chimpanzees. The chimps wander freely, emerging from the forest twice a day for feeding. This coincides with visitor arrival times to the island, with viewings of the chimps via a raised platform.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
There’s hardly a more reminiscent African destination than the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi. This swath of steep mountains covered in thick, steamy jungle is just as magnificent as it sounds. The 331-sq-km World Heritage–listed Bwindi is the best place to see Mountain Gorillas in the world.

Kibale Forest National Park
Located outside Fort Portal, the park is made up of dense tropical rainforest, within which dwells enormous numbers of primates. If you can’t afford the lavish cost of mountain-gorilla tracking, visit one of the five habituated groups of chimpanzees.