Because of the physiological, anatomical and genetic similarities between humans and nonhuman apes, great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) are susceptible to disease transfer from humans (and vice versa). Disease has been one of the greatest threats to great apes in the last 25 years. The Ebola virus, for example, resulted in the deaths of an estimated one-third of the world’s gorillas and chimpanzees. Other diseases, including polio-like viruses, monkey pox, anthrax, tuberculosis and respiratory illnesses have been transmitted from people to great apes and have also caused deaths in great apes. Although COVID-19 has not yet been observed in great apes, there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with SARS CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, it is well known that great apes are susceptible to many other human respiratory viruses that cause only mild disease in people but can kill great apes. For this reason, any human activity within great ape habitat can put great apes at risk. We therefore strongly recommend that all such activities be conducted in a way that minimizes disease transmission risks from humans to apes.
Numerous projects and facilities in various sectors (including energy, extractives, transport infrastructure, agro-industry, and associated infrastructure) are planned or operating in great ape habitat across Africa and Asia (https://www.stateoftheapes.com/). We are reaching out to companies associated with such projects and operations to provide advice on minimizing the risks of spreading COVID-19 and other infectious diseases to great apes. It is strongly recommended that all operations in great ape habitats are suspended. Most great ape range states currently have strict stay-at-home measures in place. Due to the risks of spreading COVID-19, it is ill-advised for all but essential travel and work to continue, and this is even more important for activities in great ape habitats. The most effective measure to prevent the introduction of this highly infectious disease to great ape populations is to avoid any interaction between humans and great apes, even indirect interactions (e.g. simply entering ape habitats or interacting with local people who themselves enter ape habitat in search of natural resources). If work is essential, numbers of people and time spent in the forest should be reduced to a minimum.
It is crucial that everyone is aware that anyone can transmit the virus to other people or great apes before they even show signs of disease (incubation period, healthy carriers) and that the COVID-19 virus can remain active on some surfaces for several days. Saliva, sweat, nasal secretions, sputum, urine, faeces and objects that have been contaminated with these bodily fluids are important vectors of virus transmission. If they end up in the environment, great apes can become infected by walking on or touching them. In general, exploration, construction and operations in ape habitat should adhere to guidance detailed in the IUCN Best Practices for great ape conservation (http://www.primate-sg.org/best_practices/). Here we highlight measures specific to preventing the transmission of COVID-19 while working in great ape habitat.
IF ESSENTIAL STAFF MUST ENTER APE HABITAT, THE FOLLOWING RULES
SHOULD BE STRICTLY ENFORCED:
Impose a 14-day quarantine for all staff upon arrival at project site prior to entering great ape habitat.
Every day before work, all personnel should be checked for symptoms, including fever by measuring body temperature, and reminded of applicable guidance to reduce risks of disease transmission to their fellow workers, local people and great apes (see below).
No person who is clinically ill, feels unwell, or who has been in contact with anybody ill inthe preceding 14 days is allowed in great ape habitat.
Require that a face covering is worn by anyone working in great ape habitat. Masks must be worn correctly and properly disposed of – never discarded (please see appendices).
If surgical masks are not available, a cloth covering the mouth and nose is advised. Please see: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-facecoverings
Install hand-washing facilities at sites and supply hand sanitizer (a disinfectant spray, such as chlorhexidine), gel or wipes – to all individuals entering great ape habitat.
Ensure that all individuals entering habitat of great apes are wearing clean clothing and disinfected footwear.
Reinforce instructions that people who need to sneeze or cough should cover their mouths and noses with the crook of their elbows rather than their hands; if they need to sneeze or cough they should immediately leave the area.
Forbid spitting and nose blowing/clearing on the ground.
Prohibit smoking in ape habitat due to the risk of disease transmission via contaminated cigarette butts.
Do not discard any waste in the environment, but carry it out and dispose in specific bins provided.
Avoid apes entirely – if seen, heard or smelled, do not approach.
If a great ape (or other wild animal) is found dead, even if it is at an advanced stage of decomposition, workers must follow these instructions:
• Never touch or handle the carcass
• Keep a minimum distance of 2 meters
• Immediately alert competent authorities
Companies are advised to enforce sanitation measures in camps and implement protocols for waste disposal, including food.
Watertight portable toilets or other appropriate facilities should be available on site for the use of all staff. No one should go to the toilet in the bush.
Site managers should ensure that employees are well-informed about emerging infectious diseases, ideally by implementing education and health programmes for staff who operate in great ape habitat.
No new residential infrastructure/camps should be established in or adjacent to ape habitat.
For more information about primates and COVID-19, please see:
Non Human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub
For the full recommendations on disease prevention measures relating to great apes and their habitats – published in English, French and Bahasa Indonesia – please see:
IUCN Best Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations
IUCN Best Practice Guidelines for Tourism with Great Apes
Finally, recent evidence has linked extractives and the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. Development associated with extractive industries often necessitates an influx of people from other regions and countries, and thus increases the risk of the possibility of new diseases being transferred to local population (humans and apes) which they have not encountered before. In addition, habitat alteration might facilitate the emergence and spread of diseases. It has become evident that it will be important to begin to monitor intact ecosystems to establish baselines, and then implement disease monitoring programs along development gradients. This is a recommendation from the new UNEP publication which can be found here.