World Health Organization Ebola virus emergency response team bugged out two days later
BENI, DRC––The World Health Organization on November 17, 2018 temporarily evacuated 16 Ebola virus emergency response vaccination staff from the city of Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after a dud mortar shell hit the WHO staff residence near one of the main access points for gorilla tourism to Virunga National Park.
The Central African mountain gorillas for whom Virunga National Park is best known were on November 15, 2018 downlisted from “critically endangered” to just “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, meaning that the mountain gorillas had rebounded from the apparent brink of extinction.
Gorilla numbers up under fire
The IUCN downlisting came six months after publication of new data indicating that the Central African mountain gorilla population has increased from just over 600 in 2010 to more than 1,000.
The Virunga mountain gorilla population, down to as few as 300 circa 1997, has more than doubled.
The shell-shocked WHO personnel returned to Beni and resumed doing vaccinations on November 18, 2018. Hoping to protect them, “student representatives from several universities on November 23, 2018 began a series of outreach sessions to youth groups hostile to the Ebola response,” the Democratic Republic health ministry said.
The student representatives hoped “to educate these groups of young people about the behaviors to adopt to avoid being contaminated, as well as the importance of not hampering the work of medical teams.”
But gorilla tourism is still shut down
Gorilla tourism to Virunga National Park, meanwhile, has been closed since May 2018, following the deaths of 12 rangers in 10 months in armed conflicts with local militias.
In the incident culminating in the closure, recounted Jason Burke, Africa correspondent for The Guardian, “Park ranger Rachel Makissa Baraka, 25, was shot dead, a Congolese driver was wounded, and two British tourists, Robert Jesty and Bethan Davies, were held by militia overnight.”
Together, the Virunga National Park closure, the WHO staff residence shelling, the deaths of at least 283 people in North Kivu Province from Ebola virus since August 1, 2018, and the deaths of at least 21 people in militia violence in September 2018 alone underscore that Central African mountain gorillas are still far from out of the woods.
Mountain gorillas “roam forest cloaked volcanoes of the Western Rift Valley where Rwanda, Congo and Uganda meet,” summarized Reuters. “Their habitat also supports other species found nowhere else, including golden monkeys. But they are limited to two protected areas: the Virunga Massif, spanning all three countries, and Uganda’s Bwindi national park. Both are surrounded by farmland where a growing human population threatens encroachment.”
Evidence of the mountain gorilla population increase was discovered, according to Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington by “12 teams covering more than 2,000 kilometers of difficult, forested terrain on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.”
Sponsored by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the 12 teams “searched for signs of the animals, such as nest sites, and collected fecal samples for genetic analysis,” Carrington said.
Yet there are more gorillas
“The survey found the Virunga population has risen to 604, in 41 social groups, compared to the 480 individuals counted in the last survey in 2010,” Carrington summarized. “The only other place mountain gorillas survive is in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable national park, where the last census in 2012 recorded more than 400 animals.
“Also in April, another major survey,” sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, “revealed there are far more western lowland gorillas than was previously thought,” Carrington noted, “as many as double earlier estimates. The western lowland gorilla, which accounts for 99% of all living gorillas, is now thought to number around 360,000 animals,” up from the 125,000 estimated after a previous Wildlife Conservation Society survey in 2008.
The findings of gorilla population increases, among species probably never very numerous to begin with, came despite omnipresent threats. Poaching and warfare are obvious issues. Ebola virus, which is as deadly to gorillas as to humans, is another.
Also menacing are a world of other diseases brought accidentally into gorilla habitat by international visitors, whose interest in seeing and photographing gorillas pays most of the monetary cost of protecting one of the world’s individually strongest yet collectively most fragile species.
Saving mountain gorillas means saving mountain gorilla habitat. That requires fighting encroachment on three fronts.
Farmers & poachers
Small-holding farmers usually have no interest in harming gorillas, unless the gorillas actually raid their crops, but may see cultivating an extra strip of mountainside bordering their fields as necessary to feed their families When thousands of farmers clear an extra strip of mountainside each year, the collective habitat loss is significant.
Gorillas In The Mist author Dian Fossey (1932-1985) famously saw poaching as the major threat to gorillas, especially after her favorite gorilla, named Digit, became a poaching victim.
Neither mountain gorillas nor western lowland gorillas, however, have ever been directly targeted to any great extent to obtain bushmeat or body parts. Rather, bushmeat poachers targeting antelope have often accidentally snared gorillas, whose remains are then eaten or sold, if markets can be found.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund population surveyors reported finding 380 snares set for antelope, one of which held a dead gorilla.
Loggers & charcoal makers
Illegal loggers, including those cutting trees to burn to make charcoal, also typically have little actual interest in poaching gorillas, but––working in collusion with corrupt officials––have at times massacred whole gorilla families to keep humans away from their logging-and-burning operations.
Most notoriously, Honore Mashagiro, then regional director of the Congolese Wildlife Authority for Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is believed to have orchestrated the killings of 10 gorillas whose remains were discovered in June and July 2007.
At least 157 witnesses issued statements indicting Mashagiro and a charcoal-making syndicate he allegedly ran for the gorilla massacre. But Mashagiro never stood trial for the crimes. Instead, Mashagiro in 2015 was made “Principal Investigator of the Office for Good Governance and the Fight Against Corruption of North Kivu.”
Two years later, on August 6, 2017, Mashagiro was shot dead by bandits who invaded his home in Goma, or so his children testified.
Emmanuel de Merode
The recovery of mountain gorillas since then is credited by most observers mainly to the success of a partnership formed in 2007 among the European Union, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the wildlife service of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, under the leadership of Belgian conservationist Emmanuel de Merode.
De Merode himself was critically injured in April 2014 by unidentified gunmen, reportedly on his way home from a meeting with the DRC state prosecutor at which he presented evidence about illegal oil exploration and charcoal production in Virunga National Park.
But Merode survived. More than 170 other rangers have been killed in Virunga National Park during the past 20 years, including five in a single incident in April 2018, eight months after another five were massacred when a local militia attacked their post in northern Virunga near Lake Edward.
“In recent months,” observes Jason Burke of The Guardian, “the Democratic Republic of the Congo has veered close to a plunge back into the appalling violence of the 1997-2003 civil war, which led to the deaths of five million people and a significant loss of wildlife in Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest,” designated by Belgian colonial authorities in 1925.
Yet disease is greater threat
But as dangerous as gunmen are, “The biggest threat [now] to the mountain gorilla population would be a new and highly contagious disease, because that would be very hard to control,” International Union for the Conservation of Nature primate specialist Liz Williamson told Reuters, when the downlisting from “critically endangered” was announced.
The disease threat has long been recognized. Because gorillas are very closely related to humans, practically any disease afflicting humans can pass to gorillas. But, having been largely isolated from humans for tens of thousands of years, gorillas have not evolved resistance to many common human diseases, and are believed to be as potentially vulnerable to deadly disease outbreaks as were Native Americans at the time of first contact with European explorers and immigrants.
Ebola jumped from gorillas to humans
Ironically, though, the importance of preventing disease from passing between humans and gorillas was most emphatically illustrated by a rare case of a disease––Ebola virus––jumping from gorilla to human, instead of going the other way.
Recounted Washington Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff, “In 2002, in a village called Mbomo, people started getting sick. At first, the villagers assumed it was a particularly vicious strain of malaria. But then the ill tested positive for Ebola. Over several weeks, 273 people died. When epidemiologists traced the disease, they heard the story of hunters who had cooked and eaten the carcass of a gorilla found in the jungle. At the time, dozens of gorillas had died suddenly. By 2007, largely because of Ebola outbreaks, the International Union for Conservation of Nature deemed western lowland gorillas to be ‘critically endangered.’”
60,000 visitors per year––when park is open
Today, reported freelance writer Wendee Nicole for Mongabay in 2016, “Tourists [when allowed into gorilla habitat at all] have just one hour to watch the gorillas and must stay seven meters away from the animals.”
According to the Mongabay article, “counting tourists, porters, trackers, and guards, more than 60,000 people visit Virunga National Park for the gorillas every year [in years when the park is open], in addition to locals passing through. One study found that 30% of park staff and 85% of local villagers admitted to defecating in the park without burying it, and many leave behind soiled trash that can expose the gorillas to parasites, pathogens, and other health threats.
Evaporation rises & @#$% runs downhill
“Outside the park, the potential health risks are even greater,” Wendee Nicole assessed. “Most families living and farming immediately outside the park do not have pit latrines, let alone flush toilets; 78% report defecating directly in their gardens, and 50% report using nearby bushes. When rains come, fecal matter left on the ground washes into waterways that livestock, wildlife, and people share for drinking and bathing.”
Actual, authenticated cases of gorillas dying from diseases transmitted by humans are rare. Wendee Nicole cited just one, a gorilla infant who died in 1996 from scabies mites, acquired, she wrote, “likely from curiously inspecting a villager’s scarecrow, clad in mite-infested clothing.”
But wild gorillas seldom die where humans can do necropsies to ascertain the exact causes of death. Death from disease, meanwhile, unlike death from bullets and snares, rarely leaves behind evidence as to what happened that will outlast decomposition.