It has slipped under the radar, and understandably so, but while thousands of humans have now faced the deadly Ebola virus, thousands more of the great apes have already died.
The virus affects our genetic cousins just like it does us, since our DNA is 98% similar. The only difference is that Ebola is far more deadly to the apes than it is to humans.
The highest mortality rate average for a human outbreak of the virus is 60%, while among gorillas and chimpanzees the rates are 95% and 77%, respectively.
As the apes’ environments are shrinking due to growing human populations, the animals are forced into smaller territories, which further increase their risks of dying at the hands of Ebola.
Since 1990 more than 33% of all chimpanzees and gorillas have died at the hands of Ebola.
In 1995, an outbreak is reported to have killed more than 90% of the gorillas in Minkébé Park in northern Gabon. In 2002-2003 a single outbreak of ZEBOV (the Zaire strain of Ebola) in the Democratic Republic of Congo killed an estimated 5,000 Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla).
With the WWF estimating the remaining gorilla population to stand at a mere 100 000, each epidemic wipes out massive proportions of the species.
The threats surrounding the apes are mounting. Hunting, deforestation, and climate change all decrease the already struggling populations of the threatened species, and now Ebola’s heightened threat could push them to the brink of extinction.
Scientists have managed to create a vaccine against Ebola for gorillas and apes that could work, but trials have been unable to begin. European laws prevent such testing on animals considered of near-human intelligence. The testing would likely kill the few selected as test-subjects as the dosage and kinks in the research are worked out.
Meera Inglis, a PhD. in conservation policy at the University of Sheffield, writes for theconversation.com that more has to be done to consider the big picture of the future of the great apes, as a whole.
“The question is whether or not we should make an exception in this case,” Inglis writes.
Considering the multiple fronts on which the great apes face extinction, Inglis is adamant that a sense of urgency is desperately needed. “If we do not act fast these may prove to be the last decades in which apes can continue to live in their natural habitat.”