Massive Great Ape Die-Off in Africa—Ebola Suspected

National Geographic News
Updated February 6, 2003

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A catastrophic die-off of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees at the very heart of their range in central Africa has been reported by scientists.

Scientists working with the ECOFAC program (an EC-funded regional forest conservation program for central Africa) in northern Republic of Congo said today that they were witnessing what appears to be a massive decline in ape populations in the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary (about 100 square miles/250 square kilometers) situated about 10 miles (15 square kilometers) to the southwest of the famous Odzala National Park (5,250 square miles/13,600 square kilometers).

The region is thought to contain the majority of central Africa's lowland gorillas because of its isolation, the presence of several protected areas, and large undisturbed areas of habitat types particularly favored by gorillas.

"Spanish primatologists Magdalena Bermejo and Germain Ilera, who have been studying gorillas at Lossi for the past nine years, report that the eight families (139 individuals) they have been monitoring since 1994, have disappeared from their study area of 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) in the sanctuary," ECOFAC said in a news release today.

The first deaths were reported on November 26, and in mid-December scientists from Gabon's Centre International de Recherches Medicales de Franceville (CIRMF) collected samples from four gorilla and two chimpanzee carcasses and confirmed the presence of Ebola virus in all six cases.

Since then Bermejo and Ilera and their teams of trackers have been combing the area for signs of great apes and have found only one gorilla group of six individuals on the eastern edge of their study area.

Two of the missing gorilla families were habituated for tourism viewing. They were the first lowland gorillas ever to be habituated in central Africa and generated much needed revenue for the local villagers, ECOFAC said.

The Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary was created at the request of the villagers when they realized that the long-term benefits from gorilla viewing far outweighed any short-term benefits from hunting. The disappearance of these families is an enormous setback for the villages, ECOFAC said.

"This most recent outbreak at Lossi suggests that the devastating effects of the Ebola virus on great ape populations appears to be moving eastwards. The forests in and around the Odzala National Park are known to contain the highest known density of lowland gorillas in Africa."

Scientists from Rennes University working with ECOFAC have documented up to 47 families of gorillas visiting a single three-hectare (7.4-acre) forest clearing in the north of Odzala.

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