Here at National Geographic HQ, we have no qualms about broadcasting our love for all things monkey. After all, we work in the hallowed building frequented by the likes of Jane Goodall and Gorillas in the Mist heroine Dian Fossey.
And as it turns out, quite a few of our fellow wanderlusters have also gone ape-crazy: The Guardian says ape tourism has never been more popular. So to say we’re distressed about the recent findings on newfound, fatal respiratory threats to great apes in Africa would be to put it lightly—especially considering the germ-spreading culprits are none other than well-meaning eco-tourists.
The Guardian explains:
[The scientists’] concern follows the first evidence that chimpanzees in Ivory Coast, west Africa, died from HRSV (human respiratory syncytial virus) and HMPV (human metapneumovirus) during outbreaks at the Taï chimpanzee research station. The findings pose a major problem for those protecting the declining populations of gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, now numbering less than 650, as well as orangutans in Borneo, thought to number around 15,000. The tourist dollar is essential. It protects the endangered apes from poachers and funds vital work aimed at halting their decline. But this positive aspect of eco-tourism must now be balanced against the negative side-effects if apes, and ape tourism, are to survive.
To eradicate the risks, scientists are calling on ape tourists to wear masks, keep their distance (with at least a 23-foot buffer zone), provide proof of vaccinations, and to disinfect all clothing and footwear.
Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife epidemiologist and senior author of the study that revealed the problem, says a seminar with major ape tourism operators has been scheduled to discuss ways to implement the new safety precautions. After all: “If you have spent all that money, the very least you want is a photograph of yourself with the gorillas. And the photograph doesn't look as good if you have to wear a mask,” he told the Guardian. “But we hope the type of people who go on these holidays will take that responsibility.”
While we empathize with the frustration of coming down with a cold before a big trip—especially one involving a big chunk of cash—our sentiments lie with the animals. So remember: If you feel like a walking germ, chances are good that’s precisely what you are.