Ape sanctuaries in the DRC brace themselves as Ebola hits the country

Wednesday, October 3, 2018
By Paul Martin

by Tina Deines
2 October 2018

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s most recent Ebola outbreak, which has already claimed 105 human lives, is making great-ape conservation more challenging in an already volatile region.
The disease can be transmitted between humans and apes, so conservation groups in the country need to take extra precautions to keep the animals in their sanctuaries safe.
Most at risk is the GRACE gorilla sanctuary, situated four and a half hours from a city where Ebola has been confirmed.
Researchers say the outbreak is not currently a significant threat to wild ape populations.

Ebola is once again sweeping Africa, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a new outbreak was announced Aug. 1. As of Sept. 30, the World Health Organization has tallied 161 human cases and 105 deaths.

Ebola can threaten non-human great apes as well, and the DRC is home to endangered Grauer’s gorilla, bonobo and chimpanzee populations. “When (Ebola) gets into a gorilla population, it can be devastating,” says Sonya Kahlenberg, executive director of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) in the eastern DRC.

Several great ape sanctuaries operate in the DRC, including GRACE, Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro, and Lola Ya Bonobo.

Situated just four and a half hours from the city of Butembo, where nine Ebola cases have been confirmed, GRACE is probably the most at risk from the current outbreak.

“It’s pretty scary because it’s in a big city now,” Kahlenberg says. “I think people are concerned, but not panicking,” she adds, noting that the people of the DRC are accustomed to dealing with Ebola. The country has previously suffered eight Ebola outbreaks, with the virus first appearing in 1976. The last outbreak killed four people in 2017.

According to Kahlenberg, this is the first experience GRACE has had with Ebola since opening its doors in 2009. Previous outbreaks did not reach North Kivu province, where the center is located. She says the facility has amped up hygiene protocols to protect humans and gorillas alike. Normally, all animal care staff members shower before and after their shifts. Now, that safety measure extends to all 34 workers, including maintenance staff and security guards.

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