Conservationists are in a desperate fight to save the last of the world’s gorillas. Numbers of some subspecies are so low that organisations are literally saving the species one gorilla at a time.
A perhaps unlikely foe in this battle is human-borne disease, including malaria, which has the potential for transmission from people to gorillas via bites from female Anopheles mosquitoes. Central Africa, the home of the gorillas, is highly susceptible to this disease, driving poverty and desperation amongst its communities.
As human populations expand and deforestation increases, gorillas are brought into closer contact with people and the risk of disease transmission rises – with devastating effects.
Malaria infects people and our great ape cousins
In 2012 and 2017, I was lucky to see the magnificent, gentle and intelligent gorillas up close in both Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I learned about the vital work of Zoos Victoria’s partner, Gorilla Doctors, in the protection and veterinary treatment of gorillas.
Malaria is the biggest disease killer of humans of all time, having claimed billions of human lives. Roughly half of the world’s population is at risk, and around half a million people die from the disease each year.
While the effects of malaria on human communities are horrifying, the effects of this and other human-borne diseases on gorillas, with so few remaining, pose the threat of extinction.
At least 10 species of malaria can infect gorillas, with three being the same or highly similar to those found in humans. In one study, more than 30% of gorillas were infected with malaria parasites. However, difficulties in studying the often remote and critically endangered gorillas means potential transmission pathways remain unknown. More research is required to determine the effects of this disease and how to protect gorillas in the future.
My own battle against malaria
Despite never feeling or seeing a mosquito bite, I learned about these issues first-hand when I caught malaria myself.
During my PhD, I taught practical classes on malaria, and it was this knowledge that led me to believe I was in trouble in 2017.
Despite taking malaria-prevention medication, I had encountered one of the few diseases found in both humans and gorillas: Plasmodium ovale, a parasite that appears to be growing a resistance to some medications.
My local Australian doctors had never encountered this species, and despite blood tests showing massive liver damage, I was not diagnosed for weeks. I spent a week in hospital, hooked to intravenous fluids, and left in a wheelchair.
The effects of malaria are horrific. P. ovale has a 49-hour life cycle, bursting in their millions out of blood cells to infect and multiply. The first sign is nerve pain – every touch feels like sandpaper – followed by a loss of circulation to your arms and legs, then crippling fevers, sometimes over 41℃. You shake so violently and uncontrollably that you tear your muscles. In the aftermath, your blood pressure drops, in my case close to half of what it should have been.
Malaria is also called “Blackwater Disease”, because your urine turns the colour of Coca Cola while your body excretes all your destroyed blood cells. On one hand this was fascinating to see. On the other, it was terrifying. I really needed those blood cells.
Twelve months on, I’ve been lucky with my recovery. We don’t know whether a gorilla infected with P. ovale would suffer the same symptoms, but I can’t fathom the fear a gorilla could feel with this crippling disease. Or the pain a mother could feel while watching her baby convulse with fevers. As with human children, malaria and other diseases are often most prevalent in younger gorillas.
To protect gorillas, you must protect people
Thankfully, there is hope. Gorilla Doctors monitor Eastern Lowland and Mountain Gorilla families deep in the jungles for signs of illness and injury. They deliver hands-on treatment for viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases, often via darts, or in severe cases under anaesthetic. They also support research, with PhD students studying a variety of diseases including malaria.
With such devastating diseases, the work of organisations to protect both local communities and gorillas is paramount. Ecotourism brings new people, and potentially new diseases in contact with gorillas. But it also brings crucial funding for the species and management of national parks. It is a delicate balancing act.
Studies suggest the greatest risk of disease transmission comes from local communities. Gorillas Doctors support One Health Initiatives for local communities and their domestic livestock. You cannot care for wildlife without caring for local communities and the health of staff who work in the national parks to protect the great apes.
Visiting national parks and supporting well-run ecotourism brings much-needed income and attention to these areas, although you should see your doctor for appropriate malaria prophylaxis. Zoos Victoria also supports Gorilla Doctors’ work in the wild through their mobile-phone recycling program “They’re Calling on You”.
Support organisations to protect gorillas and the people who care for and live beside them.
Back in 1979, an estimated 500 million television viewers watched a landmark moment in natural history documentaries, as David Attenborough sat with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Attenborough said at the time:
There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know.
The gorillas that Attenborough met were habituated for research purposes, and since then many gorilla groups have been habituated purely for tourism. As a result, thousands of tourists have now visited Rwanda and Uganda’s wild mountain gorillas and, to a lesser extent, the lowland gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Gabon.
Slightly less exotically, in 1961 I went to London Zoo and saw Guy the gorilla. I was utterly astonished and inspired by the sight of this animal. He turned and watched the crowd; I believe at the time I caught his eye. That moment has never left me, and the experience fired my imagination and instilled a desire to visit Africa.
You can imagine how I felt when, as a university student in 1979, I watched Attenborough’s now-famous footage from Rwanda. Could I possibly, one day, do that too?
In July this year that dream became a reality, and I went on a wildlife tour to Uganda. I undertook two gorilla treks and was thrilled by the experience. I delighted in the enthusiasm and knowledge of my guides and was moved by personal accounts of schools being built and medical facilities being improved through the local community benefits of gorilla tourism. Several of my guides said their lives had significantly improved as a result of tourism.
Money and memories
So what is the wider significance of my tale of exchanging glances with wild gorillas, 54 years after doing the same with Guy the gorilla at London Zoo?
Although admittedly expensive by many tourism standards (a gorilla trekking permit costs up to US$700 per person), it is a venture worth doing because it is in ecotourism where wild gorillas’ future now lies. Although the pioneering conservationist Dian Fossey was originally against tourism, it has been instrumental in safeguarding habitat for both lowland and mountain gorillas in Africa.
The ultimate success of wildlife tourism depends on many factors, the most important of which is the protection of enough suitable habitat. And this is where the issue lies. All gorillas are endangered, and lowland gorillas in particular are declining as a result of war, hunting, ebola, deforestation and habitat fragmentation.
It may be difficult to be inspired by gorillas if one is hungry, battling malaria, need land to grow crops, or if authorities are cutting down the forest and you have no say in the matter. Or if you are dodging bullets. As Attenborough said on the subject:
It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not – and that we are.
Getting the right balance
So where does our responsibility lie? Many of these problems can be managed through financial, technical, health and educational assistance, and a lot of concerned people are working towards these aims in Africa. The task, however, is huge and protected areas need funding, adequate protection to deter hunting and damage, and the instigation of appropriate tourism management.
The only population of gorillas that is stable and/or increasing is the mountain gorillas in Uganda. But there are only about 880 left in the wild, 400 of them in Uganda. They are, of course, vastly outnumbered by humans, so protecting their interests becomes a tricky balancing act. There is a strong need for security, mostly to deter poaching, and this costs money – one of the reasons why the gorilla permits are expensive!
The mention of finances brings us to the trickiest problem of all, because more money doesn’t automatically mean good news for the gorillas. There are oil interests in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, and the history of the DRC in particular has been beset by conflicts over resources.
Say a decision is taken to start drilling for oil in the Virunga National Park. Would an oil pipeline improve the lives of nearby local communities? Would it improve the park? Would it help the gorillas? It’s difficult to imagine the answers all being “yes”.
So here is the catch-22 at the heart of the gorillas’ lives. Gorilla conservation needs money, and for that it needs tourists. But to get to Uganda, or Rwanda, or wherever, these tourists have to get into a plane, which needs fuel. In fact almost everyone in the world wants fuel, which is why the resources industry can be such a financial boon for local communities, which is why communities are often keen to embrace resource development, which in turn can harm conservation.
Will it be tourism or the resources sector that seals the fate of the mountain gorillas? This is a dilemma for those of us who want (and can afford) to see what the world has to offer. I freely admit that my life has been enriched because of the opportunity to see gorillas in the wild. We can all choose what to do with our money, and I chose to share mine with the Ugandan people and in doing so, help to protect gorillas.
Yet we are all bound up in using energy and resources, and so we must reflect on our relationship with nature and realise the consequences of our collective actions and lifestyles.
Millions of people around the world continue to be amazed by meeting gorillas in zoos, as I was at the age of 10. Many will continue to be inspired, as were those millions watching Attenborough on television decades ago. Thus it is my hope that we can give something back to the gorillas. We can do this by understanding how our lifestyle is linked to the gorillas, by realising that our mobile phone, oil company shares, and use of resources can impact on the lives of animals in distant lands.
This is the start of a conversation about what we can do to help. We can lobby companies and politicians to value nature more. We can support and join organisations that do this work on our behalf. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can take the holiday of a lifetime and in the process show that we care about gorillas.
In doing so we also realise that, like great works of art, fine music and magnificent buildings, gorillas and their habitat are a rich source of inspiration and delight, and a treasure that can be saved, if we care enough.
The link below is to an article that reports on further efforts to protect the Mountain Gorilla.
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The link below is to a great article reporting on the growth in the population of Mountain Gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The link below is to an article that reports on the loss of half the habitat for the world’s rarest Gorillas in the last 20 years.
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