Tourists Taking Selfies With Gorillas Could Be Giving Them COVID
We’ve all got the hang of social distancing by now, but according to new research it turns out that it’s not just humans we should be staying away from.
A study by scientists at Oxford Brookes University has warned that tourists visiting wildlife parks in East Africa could be spreading COVID-19 to gorillas by getting too close for selfies.
Based on hundreds of Instagram posts taken by people looking at the wild mountain gorillas, the study claims most tourists are not staying far enough away from the animals to prevent the spread of viruses and diseases including COVID.
It’s an oddly specific case study, but there’s a serious message behind it, with the team saying that transmitting coronavirus could risk further threatening the endangered species. Scientists still aren’t sure what impact the virus has on different animals, but with only 1,063 mountain gorillas estimated to be left in the wild, conservationists want to make sure they’re not being put at risk by the pandemic, or any other diseases visitors might be carrying.
In 868 photos posted from the three main African wildlife parks that are home to the gorillas, roughly 86% showed tourists within a close enough distance to potentially transmit viruses and diseases, with 25 of the images showing someone actually touching one of the animals. The study, which looked at photos taken between 2013-19, was not initially conducted with the threat of COVID-19 in mind, but researchers have used the virus as an example of the danger that human-to-gorilla transmission poses to the endangered animals.
‘It’s a huge health risk for them,’ biological anthropologist Magdalena Svensson told CNN, ‘They’re so genetically close to us they can get most of the things we can get.’ According to Svensson, tourists were asked to maintain distance and wear face masks while visiting the gorillas even before the current pandemic, but research has found the desire to get the perfect Instagram selfie with the animals has led to tourists getting much closer than they should.
In a press release, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who heads up the Conservation through Public Health non-profit in Uganda, said:
This research provides a valuable perspective on how much tourists are willing to share their too-close encounters with mountain gorillas through Instagram, which creates expectations for future tourists.
It highlights a great need for responsible tourism to provide adequate protection while minimising disease transmission, especially now during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The warning comes after eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo tested positive for COVID-19 last month. There is no evidence that any gorillas in the wild have developed the virus so far.
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