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Tourists taking selfies with mountain gorillas put them at risk of disease

Tourists may be carelessly spreading COVID-19 to wild mountain gorillas by taking selfies with them. A team of researchers at Oxford Brookes University analyzed nearly 1,000 Instagram posts containing photos taken with mountain gorillas in East Africa.

The study revealed that most of the tourists were close enough to the animals to transmit a virus or infection, and they were not wearing face masks. 

“The risk of disease transmission between visitors and gorillas is very concerning. It is vital that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure gorilla trekking practices do not further threaten these already imperiled great apes,” said study lead author Gaspard Van Hamme.

In January 2021, captive gorillas at San Diego Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, providing new evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic can affect great apes. 

“In the photos we analyzed, we found that face masks were rarely worn by tourists visiting gorillas and that brings potential for disease transmission between people and the gorillas they visit,” said study co-author Dr. Magdalena Svensson. “With people all over the world getting more used to wearing face masks we have hope that in the future wearing face masks will become common practice in gorilla trekking.”

Mountain gorillas are native to East Africa, and can currently be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. After decades of threats from human activities, gorilla numbers have started to bounce back in recent years. There are now an estimated 1,063 individuals.

“This research provides a valuable perspective on how much tourists are willing to share their too close encounters with mountain gorillas through Instagram, which creates expectations for future tourists,” explained Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

“It highlights a great need for responsible tourism to provide adequate protection while minimizing disease transmission, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Trekking is a valuable way to generate income to support mountain gorilla conservation. At the same time, large numbers of visitors can negatively impact the wildlife and their environment.

One of the main guidelines for visitors is to maintain a minimum distance of seven meters away from the gorillas, but the new research shows that such guidelines are not adequately followed or enforced.

Russell A. Mittermeier is the Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, who was not involved in the study.

“It has become apparent in the past few years that studies of anthroponotic and zoonotic disease spread are crucial to the field of primate conservation. With that in mind, it is very exciting to see the new research on this topic coming out of the Primate Conservation Group at Oxford Brookes University,” said Mittermeier.

“While this study focused on one species, the mountain gorilla, the lessons learned are also applicable to many other primate species that are increasingly coming into contact with people. This line of research will certainly become more important in the future.”

The study is published in the journal People and Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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