Recent human infections ‘placing chimps at risk’

31May 2021
Marc Nkwame
The Guardian
Recent human infections ‘placing chimps at risk’

AS primates have been found to be susceptible to viruses that affect humans, experts here suspect that the chimpanzee populations on border regions are in danger of contracting new types of infectious diseases.

Dr Julius Keyyu, the Director of Research Development and Coordination at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) said at the weekend that the institute is developing an internal research protocol to monitor the health of chimpanzees to control transmissible infections like the coronavirus as it can infect primates if in close contact with infected individuals.

 “The initiative complements the Tanzania Chimpanzee Conservation Action Plan of 2018-2023 which was hatched to address threats facing the country’s chimpanzee population for long-term conservation of the endangered species,” he stated.

Dr Keyyu was addressing participants at a two-day session of researchers at TAWIRI premises here to develop guidelines for chimpanzees disease control and health monitoring, an event organized by the 'Bush-to-Base' Organization.

It is a non-profit entity dedicated to bringing the rigors of scientific inquiry to the health challenges of the human-animal environment and especially for the specific species, focusing on the health and wellbeing in resource-limited conservation settings.

Experts said that chimpanzees have been found to suffer human diseases such as pneumonia and other respiratory infections, raising concern on health risks in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak sapping at the tourism sector and conservation as a whole.

Chimpanzees are closest animal species to humans and thus their disease exposure is different, as well as habitual transfers of viruses from primates to humans as with the Ebola epidemic in eastern DRC and elsewhere.

The program coordinator, Lomayani Simel from the ‘Bush to Base Solutions,’ said the guidelines outline ways of protecting the chimps from viruses that can easily be transmitted from people to animals.

In the ‘prevention, detection and control’ guidelines adopted, chimpanzees and other primates are expected to be shielded from excessive exposure to tourist and national park officials, while they often meander outside conservation areas into farms and residential precincts, he stated.

Residential areas are also encroaching upon protected zones habited by primates, thus raising concern over animals' safety, he elaborated.

Gorillas in Europe for instance, were discovered to be able to contact Covid-19 viruses, driving conservation agencies to ponder the situation of chimps and gorillas in local and regional sanctuaries too. Tanzania is home to intensively studied chimpanzee populations in Gombe and Mahale national parks, with experts report here saying that primates’ numbers declining, estimates at around 2,000 at present.

Human activities invade the chimps ecosystem, spreading disease to the primates, threatening the future of the primates. Around 60 percent of chimps get out of reserves to venture elsewhere at certain moments, including inhabited areas.

 “Extensive agricultural activities such as palm oil farming are rapidly encroaching and blocking animal corridors, thus inhibiting chimps movements and affecting their wellbeing, reproduction and feeding patterns,” the NGO coordinator noted..

Chimpanzee numbers in Africa declined greatly over the past century from around two million earlier to about 250,000 in the 1990s while the current chimp population is put at around 300,000 chimpanzees at most, he added.

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