Conservationists have warned that Ebola has wiped out almost a third of the world’s chimpanzee and gorilla populations since the 1990s and could threaten the survival of these already endangered species. The current Ebola crisis in West Africa is the worst-ever human outbreak of Ebola, killing 8,641 people according to the latest WHO figures. According to the conservation group WWF, outbreaks of Ebola have caused large-scale deaths of great apes, decimating populations of endangered and critically endangered species, and may take generations to recover. In 2003 an article on the decline of great apes, written by a team led by primatologist Peter Walsh, predicted that “Without aggressive investments in law enforcement, protected area management and Ebola prevention, the next decade will see our closest relatives pushed to the brink of extinction” and sadly it appears to have become true today.
Since the outbreak in 1976, the human outbreaks of Ebola have been occurring in concurrence with outbreaks in wildlife populations, especially the great apes. “Unlike human epidemics, however, wild ape epidemics tend to go unnoticed for months or even years,” Ms Ria Ghai wrote. They share 98% of our DNA and exhibit the same pathology and susceptibility to Ebola virus as humans. Like humans, mortality from Ebola is extremely high in these apes, estimated at 95 per cent for gorillas and 77 per cent for chimpanzees. It is believed that the Ebola outbreak at the Minkébé forest block of northern Gabon in 1994, wiped out what was probably the second largest gorilla and chimpanzee population in the world. Also, three Ebola outbreaks occurred in humans in northeastern Gabon between 1994-1997. In each case, retrospective analysis showed that hunting and killing of wild chimpanzees were involved and it appears likely that the secondary epidemics amongst humans could have been due to an initial contact with the infected animal.
Hence, conservationists have urged to step up efforts to develop a vaccine to help save our closest cousins from extinction. Meera Inglis, a Conservation Policy PHD student at the University of Sheffield, said: “Vaccination could help as “a short-term strategy” to tackle the virus in apes, a longer-term strategy could focus on restoring forest habitat, as larger forested areas would reduce the chances of infected animals coming into contact with one another.”
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