“We May Become Lost in People’s Minds”: Ape Sanctuaries Face Uncertainty During COVID-19

December 23, 2020

The pandemic’s potential impact on rescued great apes and gibbons is sparking concerns among facilities who provide them sanctuary near their natural ranges in Africa and Southeast Asia—and prompting them to step up efforts to protect residents while navigating changes to how they operate.

Organizations are making contingency plans in case their populations contract the virus—a possibility, since nonhuman apes have the same receptor that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter human cells.

“Orangutans tend to be less vulnerable to most respiratory diseases than great apes in Africa, but we can only hope this will be true this time around,” says Dr. Karmele Llano Sánchez, director of International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, which rescues and rehabilitates orangutans displaced by habitat loss, the illegal pet trade, and conflict with humans. “All live with the fear our orangutans will become infected, or our staff. And we don’t know what effect the virus would have on the animals if they did get infected.”

Many sanctuary workers also share concerns about whether apes are getting sufficient care in light of changes to protocol and staffing, and if their facilities can survive the impact of losing donors and volunteer amid widespread uncertainty about when the global pandemic will end.

“It may not be so much a question of if primates will get the virus, but when,” says Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) in North Sumatra, Indonesia. “We’ve been making worst-case-scenarios plans without any idea what will play out. The uncertainty is very difficult.”

“The potential impact is terrifying.”

Most sanctuaries already limit human-primate contact. But many captive apes rely on human caregivers or veterinary staff for feeding, medical procedures, and enrichment activities.

Many also live in large, highly social groups, meaning one infected individual could easily infect the whole group. And managing a primate outbreak is much harder than containing a human outbreak.

“You can’t make a chimp socially distance or wear masks,” says Bala Amarasekaran, director and founder of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, which is prioritizing preventive measures for humans.

Some organizations worry that their captive apes, who spend time in confined parts of surrounding wildlife habitats, could spread the virus to wild apes.

The 76 rescued chimpanzees currently at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue in Cameroon sleep in large enclosures and spend their days in protected forests home to free-living chimps. While the groups can’t come in direct contact due to electric fencing boundaries, it’s unclear how far aerosolized viral particles can travel. “The potential impact is terrifying,” Founder and Director Dr. Sheri Speede says.

Most groups handle viral outbreaks fairly frequently. While they’re usually able to squash these epidemics, it typically comes at a cost—often of ape life. This is especially concerning given how little is known about COVID-19, which started spreading in apes’ range states at the start of 2020, only 12 months ago.

Last December, around 90 percent of the chimpanzees at Centre De Rehabilitation Des Primates De Lwiro (CRPL) in Democratic Republic of the Congo became infected with a non-COVID virus, to which two animals succumbed. They also had a near-disaster earlier this year when one of their research center workers died from COVID-19, triggering their total lockdown. In September, Sanaga-Yong also lost two animals, one from a non-COVID respiratory infection and the other from an unknown cause.

Tacugama’s community lived through an Ebola outbreak in 2015, but it was easier to detect and avoid, Amarasekaran says. “With COVID, we’re waiting for a big problem to happen but have no idea when it will happen and where it will come from—it could be brought home by a child, a family member.”

Indonesia’s rainy season, November through March, is always a dangerous time for apes given their vulnerability to respiratory viruses, says Chanee Kalaweit, founder and president of Kalaweit, a sanctuary for gibbons and siamangs.

“At this time of year, the gibbons are already [immune] weakened, and we have a mortality rate which increases every year,” he says. “So worry grows.”

“We’re all very tired at this point.”

Most groups plan to stay closed to the public until they have access to a vaccine. A couple have started allowing visitors again under stricter conditions.

Lola ya Bonobo in Democratic Republic of the Congo re-opened mid-August. For now, they’re only allowing four groups of 10 visitors each day, requiring face masks, temperature checks, and complete sanitization of hands, clothing, and footwear.

Many groups’ staff members are working overtime due to a lack of volunteers or foreign staff being sent home or unable to travel.

When Guinea’s border closed, some of the Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzés (CCC)’s personnel were in Europe, leaving that facility understaffed for about seven months. Staff at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, part of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya, worked without rest until rotations began in June.

Several groups have had the added stress of navigating routine natural disasters in the age of COVID-19. IAR’s Llano Sánchez says the usual steps they take to prevent forest fires from spreading to their facilities have been impeded. Kalaweit in Borneo and Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT)’s Ngamba Island sanctuary in Uganda suffered substantial flood damage in 2020—and harder-than-normal recovery because of travel restrictions, site lockdowns, reduced staff, and limited, overpriced supplies.

Sanctuary personnel are no strangers to long hours in isolated environments, but several Arcus partners say the pandemic has been more mentally and emotionally demanding than normal.

Tacugama’s 30 staff were not allowed to leave the sanctuary facilities or see their families, Amarasekaran says: “We had to enforce really Draconian laws.”

Staff at Gabon’s Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz (PGFV) stayed in total lockdown for months before allowing families to join.


Shortly after Dali, an orphaned chimpanzee, arrived at Chimpanzee Conservation Center
in late 2020, he fell seriously ill. CCC staff worked to rehabilitate
the young chimp while taking special COVID-19 prevention measures, and after
a month of quarantine, Dali was introduced to the sanctuary’s other residents.

Many staff are also working on reduced or no pay. Veterinarian and Head of Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary Dr. Stephen Ngulu and others say it’s sometimes hard for staff to fully understand the extent of their revenue losses. Amarasekaran has spent a lot of time assuring his team they’ll stay afloat and their sacrifices are worth it.

“They understand the devastating effects respiratory diseases can have on chimpanzees and are therefore committed to ensuring all protocols and contingency plans are fully adhered to,” Dr. Ngulu says.

Itsaso Vélez del Burgo Guinea, CRPL’s technical director, summed up a shared sentiment: “As long as the health of our animals is OK, we’re ultimately OK.”

Ape residents react to the new normal

Most organizations say residents aren’t getting their regular standard of care.

The orangutans at SOCP are experiencing negative side effects from spending more time in cages and losing enrichment activities, most notably “forest school” sessions in natural habitats, according to senior veterinarian Dr. Yenny Saraswati.

And some groups’ animals with deep caregiver bonds have experienced negative consequences from fewer interactions.

Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust Executive Director Dr. Joshua Rukundo reports that reduced contact “has resulted in some behavioral changes like screaming when the caregivers appear to ignore them, apparent tantrums, and some hostility toward the caregivers.”

Wanicare’s founder Willemijn Eggen says that the absence of volunteers and interns at its Cikananga Wildlife Center on Java, Indonesia, has meant overworked caregivers and fewer enrichment opportunities for primate residents, who include orangutans, gibbons, and siamangs. “It has become much more monotonous for the animals.”

Tacugama’s chimpanzees are in some ways benefitting from this period. “Now all our staff’s time is focused just on the chimps and their welfare, so things like enrichment time have increased,” Amarasekaran says. “They’re [also] getting a lot more time just to themselves. I don’t think the chimps give a hoot about not seeing visitors or about how many people come and go—I’m sure they’re much more happy to look at another chimp than human strangers.”

Many groups are also keeping new or already quarantined animals in quarantine longer or indefinitely, causing overcrowding. SOCP stopped transferring orangutans out of quarantine, meaning they have about five times more individuals quarantined than normal. Animals are more crowded than normal at Cikananga as rescues continue, and releases and translocations are suspended.

And though rescue missions are more challenging because of travel and contact restrictions, some groups are receiving more apes than normal.

“We took in as many orphans this year as in the last three years combined, which has strained our resources,” says Karen Kemp, communications director for Friends of Bonobos/Lola ya Bonobo. “It’s hard to know exactly why there are so many—some people speculate COVID is putting financial pressure on people so they’re resorting to more bushmeat hunting. It could also be because our partners in the field are getting very good at finding orphans and getting them to us.”

Pandemic positives

This uncertain time has borne some silver livings.

CCC in Guinea used to rely heavily on foreign volunteers and staff, but has been forced to depend entirely on locals. “We’re much more self-sustainable now and efficient as a result,” says Executive Director Christelle Colin.

Several groups have also sought local help to procure high-cost, high-demand supplies like personal protective equipment.

PGFV paid local women to make fabric masks for staff and villagers who sell them supplies or work on rescue teams. Amarasekaran of Tacugama says while the price for vital supplies like masks has skyrocketed, many locals are selling drastically more affordable homemade masks.

Many groups, such as PGFV and Sanaga-Yong, that already sourced most of their fruits, vegetables, and other supplies from local markets and farmers have increased their dependency on these sources. Cikananga created a farm and now feeds residents higher quality, fresher produce.

To reduce the risk of disease transmission, a few groups have also replaced hard-to-sanitize plastic or fabric enrichment items with natural resources like leaves, coconut husks, and banana stalks, which are free, abundant, and environmentally friendly.

How to help

All groups say they most urgently need monetary donations, but there are other ways to help.

Tacugama is creating new merchandise to sell online, and many organizations hope to increase the scale of membership, adoption, and guardianship programs to compensate for lost revenues.

Sanaga-Yong needs in-person volunteers and remote ones to help run fundraising and educational events.

Engaging on social media is also helpful. When Friends of Bonobos/Lola ya Bonobo posted pictures marking its 100th day in confinement, “the amount of positive responses truly floored me,” Kemp says. “This has been one of the few blessings during this time. Feeling connected to so many others reminds us we’re not being forgotten.”

Another way to make a difference is by spreading the word about the complex issues—including the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss—that generate the need for ape sanctuaries and rescue centers in the first place.

CCC’s Colin says in order for organizations like hers to survive long-term, this dialogue must also help drive people to reconsider their own impact on nature—and take action to change it.

“There will be more pandemics,” she says. “If we keep taking advantage of the natural world, each new outbreak will likely be worst than the last.”