Roundup: Wildlife Conservationists’ Response to the Pandemic

May 1, 2020

The novel coronavirus has already profoundly affected human life. While we do not yet know whether nonhuman apes are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans), there is cause for concern.

“It would be extremely surprising if a coronavirus was not transmissible between ourselves and any of the seven species of great apes,” writes Elizabeth Bennett, Vice President of Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Even if they are not infected, apes are being affected by the crisis. Around the web, leading conservationists are explaining how the virus may impact apes, what is being done to protect them, and how to prevent future zoonotic pandemics.

We must practice social distancing with nonhuman apes too
Scientists and conservationists who work with great apes are not taking any chances. A joint statement from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Species Survival Commission, Primate Specialist Group, and Wildlife Health Specialist Group strongly recommends minimizing contact between apes and people.

A screenshot of a Global Wildlife Conservation article with headline, 'National Parks in Africa Suspend Tourism Following Guidelines from IUCN,' and image of masked wildlife ranger with group of mountain gorillas in background.


A number of national parks in Africa have already closed to tourists, Global Wildlife Conservation reports. For essential staff who need to make contact with apes, the Primate Specialist Group says the great ape visitation rules outlined in their Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism must be enforced.

Protecting the health of great apes
Gorilla Doctors regularly monitors eastern gorilla groups to ensure the early detection of disease. Health checks in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo found the assessed gorillas in good health as of mid-March. You can keep abreast of the veterinary organization’s ongoing work through the four-part series “Did You Know: Gorilla Doctors + COVID-19.”

Should any apes become ill, veterinary and conservation organizations will rely on established best practices such as IUCN’s Best Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations.

Preventing future zoonotic pandemics
As people all over the world wonder how we can protect ourselves from devastating virus outbreaks moving forward, wildlife conservationists are emerging as thought leaders with a solution to at least one part of the puzzle. We must end the wildlife trade, they insist.

“It is no small task to predict which of the millions of unknown pathogens in circulation will become ‘bad actors’ in the future,” Dr. Christian Walzer, Executive Director of Global Health at Wildlife Conservation Society, recently told the International Conservation Caucus.

“But one thing is clear: A major factor driving such spillover events is the loss of natural boundaries between humans and wild ecosystems and the organisms that live in them.” Read an excerpt or download his full testimony here.

Dr. Christian Walzer giving testimony

Dr. Christian Walzer, Executive Director of Global Health at Wildlife Conservation Society, gives testimony at the International Conservation Caucus U.S. Congressional Caucus Briefing on Wildlife Trade and COVID-19.

In “Coronaviruses and the Human Meat Market,” Global Wildlife Conservation’s Dr. Russ Mittermeier writes, “We simply have to stop removing wild animals from their natural habitats for human use and consumption, practices that put us into direct contact with their parasites and pathogens.”

At the end of March, WCS issued a Policy on Reducing Risk of Future Zoonotic Pandemics. “To prevent future major viral outbreaks such as the COVID-19 outbreak, impacting human health, well-being, economies, and security on a global scale, WCS recommends stopping all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption (particularly of birds and mammals) and closing all such markets,” the document states.

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, discusses how the trade in wild animals may increase the likelihood of diseases being spread between animals and people in the report “Wildlife Trade, Covid-19, and Zoonotic Disease Risks.” TRAFFIC is calling for a nuanced approach to long-term solutions, recognizing that there are economic and social costs to different trade policy options, and that “many governments are likely to look beyond blanket prohibitions.”

You can hear several voices from the unfolding conversation about how to prevent future zoonotic pandemics in this video conference featuring Dr. Mittermeier, Dr. Walzer, and others. For more news and opinion on the current pandemic—and how to prevent future outbreaks—from the perspective of wildlife conservationists, visit WCS’s Coronavirus Updates and its One World – One Health news page frequently.

Play Wildeverse at home!
If you’re looking for another way to support conservation efforts, consider Wildeverse. The augmented reality game lets you explore virtual jungles and encounter wild apes in your own home, as you join a mission to protect animals and their habitats. It was developed using conservation data from Borneo Nature Foundation and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.