- From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, primatologists assumed great apes would be susceptible to the virus and took measures to avoid transmission to captive and wild populations.
- Precautionary measures like closing parks and sanctuaries to visitors have so far prevented an outbreak in wild apes, but have had a massive impact on the ability of conservation groups and government agencies to fund themselves via tourism.
- A year into the pandemic, the revenue shortfall is prompting a serious rethink of funding models for ape conservation that don’t rely on tourism.
On Jan. 11 this year, something happened that primatologists had both feared and expected: two western lowland gorillas at San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
Right from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts had assumed great apes would be susceptible to the virus. IUCN great ape specialists sent out a document in March 2020 to advise on the risk, and most great ape tourism sites closed immediately.
People were nervous; great ape conservation heavily depends on tourism revenue. What no one knew then was how long the pandemic would last. Now, more than a year on, how has the global shutdown affected great ape conservation in Africa?
“COVID affected every single aspect of what we do,” says Karen Kemp, communications director of U.S.-based Friends of Bonobos, which manages fundraising and marketing for the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Last year, a planned release of bonobos (Pan paniscus) into the wild was delayed due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Talks of starting a bonobo trekking industry stalled. Outreach programs were put on hold, though the organization and its local partners have since been able to resume conservation education, recently reaching 1,000 children through a series of school visits. The small amount of income from visiting researchers also fell away, and with it, of course, a lack of new bonobo research over the past year. And as its income dropped substantially, the sanctuary received more bonobo babies than in the last five years combined — possibly due to an increase in bushmeat hunting due to pandemic hardship, or possibly as a success of its outreach work.