Tourist selfies risk passing deadly viruses onto critically endangered orangutans
COVID-19 not only affects humans; our closest relatives, the great apes, are also at risk. A team of experts, including Oxford Brookes University researchers say that jungle trekkers could be risking the lives of Critically Endangered species of orangutans, by passing on human viruses like COVID-19.
The researchers examined Instagram images of tourists in Indonesia and saw them breaking the rule of maintaining a 10 meter distance, posing for selfies, stroking, cuddling or feeding the wild orangutans. This activity exposes the orangutans to human diseases which can prompt deadly infections.
Lead author of the research paper, Andrea Molyneaux, a conservation biologist based in North Sumatra and a passionate advocate of safe jungle trekking practices, said that "the risk of zoonotic disease transmission between visitors and orangutans is extremely concerning. There are national park rules that inform visitors of the risks but our results indicate that tourists may not be aware of them. There appears to be apathy within the wider conservation community to promote awareness of these rules. We desperately need to promote awareness of these rules so visitors know they must not get close to or feed orangutans."
Potential for disease transmission
Orangutans are found on only two islands in the world, Sumatra and Borneo, and all three species of orangutans are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. The team highlighted poor rule compliance when people visited orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park, North Sumatra, Indonesia.
Ecologist and Ph.D. student at Oxford Brookes University, Emma Hankinson, said that "in the photos we analyzed we saw tourists touching, patting, cuddling, feeding and getting very close to orangutans for selfies. I have worked extensively in Sumatra and have witnessed such behaviors first hand. There is a substantial potential for disease transmission between people and the orangutans they visit.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has increased people's awareness of disease risk and we hope this may have positive impacts on the behavior of visitors to the Gunung Leuser National Park and other great ape tourism sites, making them more likely to comply with the rules."
Great apes also victims of the pandemic
In January 2021 three captive western lowland gorillas in San Diego Zoo were confirmed positive for SARS-CoV-2 and subsequently four orangutans and five bonobos at the zoo were given the Zoetis COVID-19 vaccination. In September 2021, nine captive western gorillas at Atlanta Zoo tested positive. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19, showing that the current pandemic also can affect great apes.
Ashley Leiman OBE, Director/Trustee of Orangutan Foundation UK, said that "this important and timely paper illustrates a lack of respect for orangutans, by visitors wanting close proximity for a selfie, who seem unaware that this action could put orangutans at risk of disease. Now that the world is opening up and with it tourism, a shift in attitudes is urgently required and visitors should keep 10 meters away if they are to protect the Critically Endangered orangutans they wish to see."
The research is published in Folia Primatologica.