The on-going Ebola epidemic has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the people of West Africa. The rapid spread of the virus has fundamentally changed all life in the countries that have been affected, but new reports have found that humans are not the only victims of this brutal disease. Reportedly, one-third of the world’s chimpanzee and gorilla population has been wiped out by the virus since 1990. Given the highly endangered status of these animals, Ebola has been named the single biggest threat to the conservation of chimpanzees and gorillas.
As an experimental vaccine for Ebola makes its way to West Africa, conservationists have suggested that both humans and great apes can benefit from the vaccine. However, to truly get a handle on the virus, for the sake of humans and apes alike, more effort needs to be directed towards restoring the native forests where chimpanzees and gorillas live. While it might seem odd to recommend forest restoration as a possible resolution to the Ebola crisis, it turns out the health of an ecosystem plays a vital role in the health of people and animals.
Deforestation and the Spread of Ebola
The most recent outbreak of Ebola took place across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is believed that the virus outbreak began in Gueckedou, a remote village in Guinea. From this small village, the virus was able to spread to the coastal nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia, in part due to deforestation.
The Ebola virus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa. Although the virus was first discovered in 1976, major outbreaks only started to occur around the 1990s. Scientists believe that the reason for this is linked to an expansion of human populations into forested areas during this time, which spawned a drastic change in the native ecosystem. Deforestation for development, and bush-burning to make way for agricultural land are the major drivers of defaunation in West Africa. As humans start to develop the thick forest into habitable land, they inevitably come into contact with wildlife populations, enabling the transmission of zoonotic diseases.
Over the last decade, 80 percent of Guinea’s rainforests have been destroyed, over half of Liberia’s forests are used for logging and it is predicted that Sierra Leone will be completely deforested within the next few years.
Ebola outbreaks in 1994 were tied back to deforestation and human-ape contact (the virus can also be transmitted through fruit bats) and it is believed that this is also the case with the most recent Ebola outbreak. Seeing as West Africa has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, the incredibly rapid spread and scope of the virus is, sadly, to be expected.
Habitat Loss and Apes
As these previously hidden species are left with nowhere to go, they are forced onto agricultural lands as a last resort. Poaching of gorillas and chimps for bushmeat and the exotic animal trade has increased drastically as a result. Bushmeat has been considered a primary source of protein in West Africa for hundreds of years. Despite the fact that it is currently illegal to kill or consume endangered species, bushmeat has become a commercialized industry.
According to WWF, the bushmeat trade is the greatest threat to forest biodiversity in West Africa. Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluid. It is reasonable to believe that hunting chimps and gorillas would expedite the spread of the virus.
According to a report from Jane Goodall International Canada, Ebola outbreaks among chimps and gorillas can go undocumented for months or even years after the fact, which makes the chances of transmission to humans even more likely to occur.
During the 1990s a series of outbreaks were linked directly to chimpanzee hunting. In the past two years, there was a massive Ebola outbreak amongst chimps in the Tai Forest along the Ivory Coast, which borders Liberia. This outbreak ravaged about 50 percent of the chimp population. While this incident has not been directly linked to the later human outbreak, it is known that the Ebola virus cannot survive without continued transmission between human and wildlife populations.
While we might not track Ebola outbreaks in apes as closely as we do in humans, there is a very real pattern between mass chimpanzee die-off and the rise of human contamination.
Without the added protection of the forest and an increase in motivation to enter into what little habitat apes have left, there is nothing to slow the spread of this deadly virus.
What We Need to Learn
The Ebola virus poses as real of a threat to humans as it does to the chimpanzee and gorilla population. We have seen the horrific consequence that a mass outbreak can have on humans, but it time that we also turned our attention to the impact the virus is having on these two endangered ape populations. If humans continue to encroach onto ape habitat, the risk of an outbreak increases exponentially.
We have never seen an outbreak of Ebola that has been as devastating as the most recent occurrence. Noting the pattern between an increase in deforestation and frequency of outbreaks, it would seem that the best way to combat future epidemics would be to focus on restoring the chimp and gorilla habitat.
If the Ebola virus has been able to wipe out these ape populations by one-third in the past decade alone, and wecontinue at this rate, we will likely see these animals disappear within our lifetimes. Hunting apes and destroying their habitat contributes to their decline, but it is readily apparent that continuing to do so poses a serious threat to the health of humans and apes alike.
Because there is no known cure for Ebola, natural barriers are the best defense we have against this merciless virus. If nature can protect us, it is time we started directing our efforts to protecting it back.
To learn more about how you can support conservation efforts in West Africa, click here.
Image source: Valerie/Flickr