There are many questions about how this year’s Ebola outbreak started, how it spread so quickly, and how to prevent it from spreading further—but what does Ebola have to do with non-human great ape conservation?
It is known that Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever is transmitted by coming into direct contact with bodily fluids of someone infected and showing symptoms of the virus, a cadaver of someone who died from the virus, or the fluids or meat of an infected animal.
Bushmeat is the meat of any non-domesticated animal that is consumed by humans. In Africa, bushmeat is not only consumed locally, but it is exported worldwide. Many bushmeat species are endangered, in which cases the hunting of those species is illegal. Still, these animals are hunted, and their meat is sold on the black market and exported to other countries, including the United States. No one really knows just how many pounds of illegal bushmeat are smuggled into the U.S., because it is believed only a fraction of the imports are confiscated—but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions of pounds per year.
While habitat loss is the largest long-term threat to African ape populations, hunting for bushmeat has risen in the last couple of decades as the most significant immediate threat—and could cause species extinction if the practice continues to grow. However, with the emergence of the deadly Ebola virus, more people have begun to tune into the problem. Though research shows that fruit bats serve as hosts to the Ebola virus and are believed to be the direct source of the current outbreak, consumption of infected ape meat has been linked to previous outbreaks since the late 1990s. Primates and other animals can become infected by eating half-eaten fruit that have come in contact with fruit bat saliva, and the virus is passed to humans who eat infected animal bushmeat.
The Ebola virus can also be detrimental to wild ape populations. In 2002, over 5,000 gorillas died from an outbreak. In fact, the threat of imminent Ebola outbreaks (and other pathogens) on already dwindling populations has prompted researchers to propose developing a vaccination for the apes. Before vaccines could be administered to wild apes, however, some researchers feel they would need to be tested on captive apes. As we know, there is a push to end the use of chimpanzees in research altogether, so the topic sparked a debate earlier this year (read more on that here).
The Ebola scare has also left African sanctuaries in a predicament, such as Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone—one of the affected countries.
The travel limitations and general panic about the disease have kept people away from the country, and the lack of outreach opportunity has hit the sanctuary and others like them hard. Additionally, with travel restrictions in the affected countries, it is harder for volunteers to help with the day-to-day work. The sanctuaries have had to hire more local staff, causing their funds to be stretched thin. Recently, the Chimpanzee Conservation Center in Guinea has been impacted by this trouble as well. Thankfully, no apes in sanctuaries have contracted Ebola, and all the caregivers have been taking extra hygiene precautions to make sure everyone stays healthy.
Though the direct threat to great apes from Ebola is reason for concern, it’s possible that the attention on Ebola could have a positive impact on ape conservation and help prevent future outbreaks in human populations. Unlike other pandemics and deadly pathogens, which are able to sustain in human populations long-term, Ebola is a unique virus in that it comes and goes sporadically in humans in the form of destructive outbreaks. So far these outbreaks seem to have originated from human contact with infected wildlife. With effective education in local communities, and efforts to take legal action against logging, prevention of hunting and eating bushmeat can save countless lives—of both human and nonhuman apes.