A new study published by the Center for Disease Control provides evidence that interspecies transmission of infectious agents from humans to mountain gorillas is not only possible, it could also be causing the deaths of critically endangered animals.
The study was conducted by researchers from the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project; UC Davis; the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University; and the Rwanda Development Board.
What’s most troubling about the results, say researchers, is that the last remaining 786 mountain gorillas in the world live in two protected parks in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo–and these parks are surrounded by the densest human populations in Africa.
According to the LA Times, the study focused on a 2009 outbreak among 12 gorillas that was blamed for the deaths of an adult female and a newborn infant. Tissue samples from the stricken animals revealed the presence of nucleic acid from a virus known to scientists as human metapneumovirus.
“These animals are so closely related to us that it is not all a surprise they are susceptible to human pathogens,” Kirsten Gilardi, assistant director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center told the LA Times. “There are some measures we can take to better protect mountain gorillas from incursions of human infections. For example, in an open-air environment, if people stay seven yards away or farther from a gorilla, it would be far less dangerous for that animal.”
Although mountain gorilla tourism helps ensure the sustainability of the species by generating much-needed revenue and increasing global awareness of the precarious status of this species in the wild, say the researchers, this tourism, however, also poses a deadly risk for disease transmission from humans to the gorillas.
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