Gorilla Trekking in the COVID-19 era
The Gorilla Friendly Organisation has come up with a pledge to try and ensure that Gorilla Trekking Activities that are carried out in the following National Parks: Bwindi, Mgahinga, Volcanoes, Virunga and Kahuzi - Biega are all done in the safest a manner as possible. The pledge asks each person to answer a series of questions that are meant to highlight awareness and point out the do's and don'ts when it comes to Gorilla Trekking amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The pledge importantly also asks each person to return to the website after your Gorilla Trek to fill out a short feedback form which is aimed at obtaining information that can be analysed anonymously to help structure Gorilla Trekking policies in the future. In order to find out more about the pledge click HERE
It is well known that Gorillas and Chimpanzees are genetically very closely related to human beings, which means they are more able to contract Zoonotic Diseases. Prior to the COVID 19 pandemic Responsible Tourism advocates which included Governments, Wildlife Authorities, Conservation Entities, Wildlife Charities and NGOs all championed prudent measures that should be taken by all tourists who visited Gorillas and Chimpanzees. In Uganda work was also undertaken by organisations such as Conservation Through Public Health to sensitise local communities who live in close proximity to the National Parks where the great apes live. This important work was done in order to find a sustainable balance that had a positive impact for both the animals and thier human neighbours.
The advent of COVID 19 has highlighted, the need to re-look at the protocols and practices associated with visiting Gorillas and Chimpanzees due to the extremely infectious nature of the disease.
"In the past other disease outbreaks have affected great apes similarly to humans. From 2002-2003 Ebola killed 5,500 endangered western gorillas at the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, with the virus causing a third of gorilla deaths in the DRC since the 1990s. It is feared that a similar spread of COVID-19 would also devastate the remaining great ape populations"
This makes it vitally important to garner a consensus on best practice procedures and behaviours whilst Gorilla and Chimpanzee trekking to ensure that even with the COVID 19 threat the animals and local communities are still protected.
One of the biggest shifts in behaviour that we have seen is due to social media and urge for selfies with animals on safari. A recent study of over 1000 instagram photos of people visiting species in East Africa concluded "that most tourists were close enough to the animals to have transmitted the virus - particularly as most were not wearing face masks" The irony here is that with even with a reduction in the number os tourists on safari over the last year or so which has seen an increase of wildlife activity in some areas there is still a real risk of COVID19 transmission to animals due to this type of behaviour. Animal selfies are deemed to be such an issue that Stop the Selfie Campaign was recently run to highlight the negative affects of taking selfies with animals.
The fear is that this misunderstanding is driving people towards wildlife black markets, poaching and of course animal welfare in terms of COVID 19 transmission. The ICUN/SCC Specialist Primate Group has come up with a set of guidelines on how to ensure that photos don't have a detrimental effect on the wildlife.