Ebola Virus Killing Gorillas, Chimps in Congo

A 4-month-old lowland gorilla is fed in Congo. i i

hide captionGorilla caregiver Andre Bauma holds four-month-old lowland gorilla Tumaini in July 2006 at the Diane Fossey gorilla center in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. The center was established to help an ape population targeted by poachers. Now the ebola virus is a threat, too.

John Moore/Getty Images
A 4-month-old lowland gorilla is fed in Congo.

Gorilla caregiver Andre Bauma holds four-month-old lowland gorilla Tumaini in July 2006 at the Diane Fossey gorilla center in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. The center was established to help an ape population targeted by poachers. Now the ebola virus is a threat, too.

John Moore/Getty Images

A new study confirms that the ebola virus is causing a massive die-off of gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa. Scientists differ on whether there's anything humans can do to help their closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

In the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, researchers had been tracking groups of gorillas for several years. Four years ago, they started to find gorilla carcasses. And over the next four months 130 of the 143 apes disappeared.

Peter Walsh took those numbers, plus some others, to figure out how big an impact ebola was having in this region.

"A bunch of fancy statistics" led Walsh to "a fairly clear story" that the outbreaks "had killed literally thousands of gorillas."

Walsh is a ecologist from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. He says this study looked at only one of the areas where apes were devastated by ebola.

He says the virus has covered between half and two-thirds of what he calls "the really good habitat for gorillas and chimpanzees in Central Africa."

Walsh hopes those numbers will spark action to save gorillas. He wants to give them a vaccine to protect them from ebola.

"This is a doable thing," he says. "But the problem is nobody has been trying to do it."

One reason they aren't is that there isn't a vaccine ready yet. Tom Geisbert is developing an ebola vaccine for the U.S. Army. He says researches have had success testing two vaccines on apes, but it will be years before they are ready.

"It's a long way from showing that a vaccine works in an animal in lab conditions to an animal in the field," Geisbert says.

What if a vaccine is developed? Sandy Harcourt of the University of California/Davis doubts you could give it to wild animals.

"I can't see that we can prevent the spread of ebola," he says.

Shooting wild apes with darts as they move through tropical forests is extremely hard, Harcourt points out. And if you gave the animals a vaccine hidden in a treat, dominant animals — the big males — would eat the share intended for the females and young.

Walsh hopes such challenges won't deter action.

"For me to know that they're all dying off and we could do something about it just rips me apart," he says.

His study appears in the current issue of Science.

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