Viruses that cause common colds in humans are killing many wild chimpanzees, and eco-tourism is one of the major ways the apes get infected. In recent months, a community of 205 animals in Uganda’s Kibale National Park had been showing signs of respiratory infection, and dying afterwards.  

Tony Goldberg, a US wildlife epidemiologist visiting Kibale, managed to do an autopsy of Stella, one of the female chimps and found she died from human metapneumovirus (HMPV), which only causes colds in humans. The Guardian reports that more than 12% of the community that Stella belonged died in the outbreak. 

Guidance from the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that people should stay at least 7 metres away from wild apes, tour groups limit their size, all visitors wear face masks and people who feel unwell be excluded. However, such rules are often not followed. 

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a wildlife veterinarian and founder of Conservation Through Public Health, a Ugandan organisation, said that “Some tourists just don’t listen”  and that local guides might or might not correct them because “They don’t want to be rude, and they find it hard to manage tourists.” 

A 2020 study titled “Analyzing the popularity of YouTube videos that violate mountain gorilla tourism regulations” found that 40% of videos of mountain gorillas depicted humans within arm’s reach of gorillas or engaging in physical contact with the animals. Another 2020 study titled “Observation of Visitors at a Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) Ecotourism Site Reveals Opportunity for Multiple Modes of Pathogen Transmission” reported tourists coughing during 88% of excursions, sneezing in 65%, and urinating in 37%. 

Ape-watching ecotourism, a key source of revenue for the 13 African countries where it occurs,  is a serious disease risk for great apes but other factors are at play.  Children living near the forest where the apes live may also be the source of the epidemy.

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.