July 14 is particularly special for our closest living relative in the animal kingdom. That’s because today is World Chimpanzee Day. The day falls slap in the middle of one of the greatest pandemics the world has ever faced. While human infections and deaths continue to climb, the lives of thousands of chimpanzees are in trouble if COVID-19 gets into ape communities.
Already facing a slew of threats including habitat destruction, hunting, the illegal pet trade, and a thriving but unsustainable commercial market for bushmeat, chimpanzees are highly endangered. One hundred years ago, there were an estimated one to two million chimps across 25 countries in Africa. Today, there are as few as 350,000. With these tragically low numbers, they might not survive a pandemic.
Research indicates that gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gibbons are as susceptible as humans are to viruses such as COVID-19. Ebola – a haemorrhagic fever that affects both humans and great apes – has led to mortality rates of up to 95 percent in gorillas. Calculations indicate that some of those populations will need more than 130 years to recover. So, it’s entirely possible this could happen.
Our apes are facing a catastrophic and emergency situation. If the virus gets into ape communities, flattening the curve will be all but impossible. Humans are finding it challenging to practice social distancing; how on earth are gorillas going to social distance within groups? It’s impossible. And so the spread will be fast and furious in already depleted populations.
What this means is that chimpanzees need protection now more than ever.