Humans Spread Viruses to Wild Gorillas Through Selfies

Instagram selfies posted under #gorillatrekking reveal an alarming number of tourists shirking important disease prevention guidance for gorillas in the wild.

The female Gorilla Fatou looks at a strawberry which topped a ‘rice-cake’ to celebrate her 61st birthday at the zoo in Berlin, Germany, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

(CN) — Sure he has an untamable smile and is kind of your genetic cousin, but if you’re taking a selfie with a wild gorilla, you’re too close. An analysis of Instagram selfies published in the journal People and Nature on Tuesday sounds the alarm on tourists who are violating important health measures like social distancing and wearing a mask to protect wild gorillas from contracting viruses carried by humans.

“Social media is known to have a huge influence on people’s attitudes and behaviors. Seeing other people’s amazing selfies with wildlife encourages others to also get closer to wildlife to get the perfect shot, normalizing abnormally close distances to wild animals,” Magdalena Svensson, one of the paper’s authors, told Courthouse News. Svensson is a lecturer in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University.

“This being said, social media can for the same reason be a great tool to promote conservation awareness,” Svensson added.

Searching Instagram by #gorillatrekking and #gorillatracking, researchers at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom collected 18,000 photos taken between 2013 and 2019 to analyze how close tourists got to mountain gorillas in the wild.

After sorting out photos without people, images of art and pictures captioned as throwbacks, the team had 858 photos of people with gorillas taken in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to study.

To protect wild animals from the viruses humans carry and spread, international rules ask tourists to don masks and maintain a distance of 7 meters — more than 20 feet — from gorillas in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has been publishing this guidance for more than a decade.

“It has become apparent in the past few years that studies of anthroponotic and zoonotic disease spread are crucial to the field of primate conservation,” said Russell Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group in a statement. Mittermeier did not participate in this research project, but observed, “While this study focused on one species, the mountain gorilla, the lessons learned are also applicable to many other primate species that are increasingly coming into contact with people.”

The opportunity to see mountain gorillas in the wild has become a lucrative eco-tourism business adding an estimated $120 billion to global GDP in 2018 and funding habitat conservation efforts.

An estimated 50,000 tourists visit mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo every year. Rwanda alone generates an estimated $19.2 million annually from gorillas trekking.

“Trekking, however, may pose a threat of human-to-gorilla disease transmission that could have disastrous effects on wild gorillas,” researchers warn in the paper. “The ‘like’ currency generated from such photos also forms the basis of the trend for tourism selfies and can be an incentive to visit attractions with animals.”

In addition to finding 25 photographs of tourists touching gorillas, 86% of the photos collected memorialized tourists within a “critical” 4 meters or 13 feet of mountain gorillas. Only 3% of tourist selfies adhered to the 7-meter rule. Researchers also note face masks were only worn in photos collected from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even then, masks were worn in only 65% of photos attributed to the Congo. 

On average researchers estimate distance between gorillas and humans in Instagram photos decreased by 1 meter — 3 feet — between 2013 and 2019.

While the study offers only a snapshot, Svensson said the risks are very real.

“There are many reported cases where diseases from humans have been fatal for gorillas, and due to their close phylogenetic relationship with humans they are susceptible to a wide range of infectious human diseases,” Svensson said. “The masks and distances are therefore very important precautions.”

Humans can infect gorillas with several respiratory illnesses including the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, SARS-Cov-2, and the viruses that cause the flu. Gastrointestinal bacteria like Escherichia coli and parasites like mites can also pass from humans to gorillas and vice versa.

With the spread of Covid-19 bringing mask-mandates into the social consciousness, the researchers write, “it would be a missed opportunity to not use this momentum to continue to promote the use of facemasks and appropriate distancing when visiting mountain gorillas and indeed other great apes.”

The goal is not to stop gorilla trekking, but to encourage treading safely. “We do not want to stop tourists coming to visit the habituated gorillas, as the gorilla tourism brings in vital revenue to gorilla conservation and to communities living near the gorillas,” Svensson said. “But we need to ensure these practices are sustainable.”

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