Masking the problem – should mountain gorilla tourists cover up to save the great apes?

Posted on May 14, 2011

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I can hardly believe it’s almost a year since I carted myself off to the African jungle. I remember being full of excitement and apprehension as I put aside my high-heels and lip gloss and packed my box-fresh hiking boots and 100 per cent Deet. As a city girl who’s never even been camping it was quite a challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. Although I went specifically to film wild and captive chimpanzees; I was desperate to try to see the mountain gorillas, time permitting.

Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)

 The first time I heard about these magnificent great apes was when I was nine years old. The news that American primatologist Dian Fossey had been murdered made international headlines. A pioneer in her field, she devoted her life to studying and protecting mountain gorillas, albeit controversially. Her novel, Gorillas in the Mist, was later made into a Hollywood film. Fossey’s story certainly left an impression on me. My trip didn’t happen last year, so it’s very much at the top of my wish-list.

Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) can be found in Virunga Volcanoes Massif, which spreads across Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda,Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. They are among the most endangered animals in the world. Thanks to modern technology (radios) and expert trackers, you and I are able to pay for the privilege ($500 per person) to ­­observe these great ­­apes for a precious hour.

But eco-tourism is considered by some to be a double-edged sword. On the plus-side there’s a considerable amount of money which is generated each year by tens of thousands of foreign visitors. This has no doubt helped in the fight against extinction as well as being a good source of revenue for local communities. But tourism can also bring a hidden threat – disease.

We share around 98 percent of our DNA with gorillas. This close genetic relatedness has led to concerns that gorillas are susceptible to respiratory diseases that affect people. And now a group of researchers say this is evident in wild populations. 

An infant mountain gorilla

Scientists have found that a human virus contributed to the deaths of two wild mountain gorillas in 2009. The study published in the journal, Emerging Infectious Disease, examined tissue samples and discovered a strain of human pneumonia. It’s still not known how the virus jumped to the gorillas. Co- author of the study, Mike Cranfield and executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project said: “Because there are fewer than 800 living mountain gorillas, each individual is critically important to the survival of their species.

“Mountain gorillas are surrounded by people, and this discovery makes it clear that living in protected national parks is not a barrier to human diseases.”

The veterinarians of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, who monitor and treat these great apes, say they have seen an increase in the frequency and severity of respiratory disease outbreaks in recent years. So should masks be made mandatory for visitors in the parks?

Ian Redmond in DR Congo

Ian Redmond OBE, of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), who worked closely with Fossey, told me: “Opinions differ even among vets working with great apes.  Of course we must take precautions to minimise risks, but immune systems work by being challenged. 

“Any outbreak of disease is regrettable, but in terms of immunity it is better to be exposed to non lethal pathogens than to try to avoid contact altogether – that may pose a greater risk by keeping the population immunologically naive.

“My personal feeling is masks should be optional unless there is a specific identified need. There are some I am sure who would argue that any potential risk is enough of a risk. But should tourists everywhere wear masks? Probably not. The mountain gorillas are the only kind of ape that are increasing in numbers, so we are succeeding there and that would not happen if it were not for tourism.

“The masks themselves can become a disease risk unless every mask is collected and burned after use. I am not yet convinced this is a necessary step for every ape visit everywhere. What concerns me is whether it would impact on the experience for the tourists with no great benefit to the apes.  A careful and measured approach is necessary, and the same conclusion may not be appropriate for every site.”

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) mountain gorillas have been visited by tourists since 1955, although in the early years these tours were largely unregulated. Today the guidelines in place are robust. Groups are kept small and any visitors feeling unwell or suffering from a cold on the day of the trek are told they can’t go.  Permits have to be bought in advance and then there’s the 7-metre rule. The problem is this is ‘aspirational’ because you can’t stop a 50-stone gorilla moving closer to you.

respiratory masks are used in some gorilla treks

 The debate surrounding the use of masks will no doubt continue. The IUCN guidelines says “great ape tourism must be based on sound and objective science” which gives me hope that whatever decision is made visitors will respect, if they and future generations want to continue enjoying the company of these gentle giants.

Ian Redmond is leading two gorilla voluntours for The Great Projects this year. The eco-tours aim to raise awareness about the great apes and their habitat in Uganda.

To find out more information click here.

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