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Ebola Virus Killing Gorillas, Chimps in Congo

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Ebola Virus Killing Gorillas, Chimps in Congo

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Ebola Virus Killing Gorillas, Chimps in Congo

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There's bad new from Africa for gorillas and chimpanzees. A new study confirms the Ebola virus is causing a massive die-off of the apes.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that scientists differ on whether humans can do anything to help.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: In the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, researchers have 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 other figures, to figure out how big an impact Ebola was having on this region.

Dr. PETER WALSH (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Primatology): And so I did a bunch of fancy statistics and this and that, and out to the other side popped a fairly clear story that these outbreaks have killed just literally thousands of gorillas.

SHOGREN: Walsh is an 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.

Dr. WALSH: It's already been through about a half to two-thirds of their really good habitat for gorillas and chimpanzees in Central Africa.

SHOGREN: Peter Walsh hopes those numbers will spark action to save gorillas. He wants to give a vaccine to protect them from Ebola.

Dr. WALSH: This is doable thing, and yet the problem is, is that nobody has been trying to do it.

SHOGREN: 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 researchers have had success in testing two vaccines on apes, but it will be years before they are ready.

Mr. TOM GEISBERT (U.S. Army Medical Research): It's a long way from showing that the vaccine works in an animal in lab conditions to an animal in the field.

SHOGREN: Even if you get a vaccine, Sandy Harcourt from U.C. Davis doubts that you could give it to wild animals.

Mr. SANDY HARCOURT (University of California, Davis): I can't see that we can prevent the spread of Ebola.

SHOGREN: He says darting wild apes in tropical forests is extremely hard, and if you gave the animals a vaccine hidden in a treat, the dominant animals - the big males - would eat the share intended for the females and young.

But Peter Walsh, the author of the new study, hopes these challenges won't deter action.

Dr. WALSH: And I've walked through the forest, and for me to know that they are all dying off like this and we could do something about, it just - it rips me apart.

SHOGREN: The study appears in the current issue of Science. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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