Ape Expert Worried, Urging Vaccination: Ebola Has Wiped Out A Third Of The Western Lowland Gorillas

Ebola still poses a massive threat to the western lowland gorilla, one of the giant apes of Africa. Ebola is widely under-reported as a threat to non-human primates, but the disease’s impact on the western lowland gorilla has been nothing short of disastrous. Peter Walsh, a conservationist and ape researcher from the University of Cambridge, says that Ebola has already killed about one-third of the western gorilla population in the last couple of decades or so.

“The impact has been more severe on gorillas,” Walsh, founder of the non-profit organization VaccinApe, explained. “They die at a higher rate—between 95 and 97 percent — in outbreak areas.” Walsh is extremely worried about the survival of the gorillas in Africa.

Walsh’s projects, according to his bio, include work on ape vaccination and “rapid diagnostic tools to screen tourists and staff for pathogens that threaten habituated apes.” He was in the news last year as he proposed ways to successfully vaccinate gorillas and other apes against Ebola. His work is in the news again.

This month, a Take Part article featured the lingering concerns about Ebola’s threat to the gorilla population. Walsh, according to that article, was on a team that developed an Ebola vaccine for chimpanzees. Walsh said that they already tried vaccinating the gorillas by using a dart gun, which he said the gorillas don’t mind too much. Another route of vaccination is by using an oral Ebola vaccine that is placed in bait traps. Another strategy is to use a self-replicating Ebola vaccine in the gorillas which Walsh says would make them immune to Ebola. Katharine Gammon explained the process.

“The idea is to use a species-specific virus that all wild gorillas and chimps already carry to deliver the vaccine. After some gorillas or chimps get the vaccine, they spread the infection to others, creating immunity around the community.”

Walsh said that there is a possibility that a virus-borne vaccine could mutate in the wild, but that it’s no more likely to mutate than the wild strain.

Ebola is killing your cousins too… http://t.co/zMv4IUs0yQ pic.twitter.com/dMoN4BWoC9

— Guillaume Adam (@gumoad) January 24, 2015

“None of the infectious parts of Ebola are included in the vaccine, so there is no chance that you would get some sort of recombinant super-virus,” Walsh said. “We are conservationists, and we are not going to recklessly do something dangerous.”

Ebola isn’t the only disease that can be passed between gorillas and humans either, and Walsh is concerned about all of them.

“Human respiratory viruses are the number one cause of death; they cause half of deaths in chimps and gorillas that are in tourism and research programs—particularly in programs where people get close. People get on a plane, catch a classic international travel cold, they go to chimp sites and cough on them, and the apes get it and they die.”

Respiratory diseases from humans account for about half of all habituated gorilla and chimpanzee deaths in research and tourism programs, according to Walsh.

Still, hunting gorilla for bushmeat remains the biggest threat to these great apes. The WWF states that gorillas and other apes are being killed “primarily to supply high-end demand for meat in urban centers, where the consumption of ape meat is considered to be prestigious amongst the wealthy elite.”

This month, The Times called Ebola one of the greatest risks to the survival of the gorilla species. The death rate from Ebola infection in gorillas is almost twice that of the death rate from Ebola infection in humans.

[Photo via jinterwas on Flickr]