Selfie-taking tourists risk giving critically endangered orangutans COVID-19 | Totally Vegan Buzz
Selfie- taking tourists risk giving critically endangered orangutans COVID-19
Image: John And Penny / Shutterstock.com

“The virus can spread from people to animals during close contact. People with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife.”

Tourists are jeopardizing the lives of critically endangered orangutans by posing too close for pictures and selfies, according to a study.

The warning comes after a team of experts, including Oxford Brookes University researchers examined social media pictures of trekkers visiting Indonesia.

They found tourists breaking national park rules of maintaining a 10-metre distance. The visitors were seen posing for selfies and even stroking or feeding the endangered apes.

These activities expose orangutans to human viruses, including Covid, which can lead to deadly infections.

‘Substantial potential for disease transmission’

Study co—author, Emma Hankinson is an ecologist and PhD student at Oxford Brookes. She said: “In the photos we analysed 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 behaviours 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 behaviour of visitors to the Gunung Leuser National Park and other great ape tourism sites, making them more likely to comply with the rules.”

‘Need to promote awareness’

Orangutans are found on only two islands in the world, Sumatra and Borneo. Moreover, all three species are currently listed as critically endangered.

Lead author and a conservation biologist based in North Sumatra, Andrea Molyneaux, said: “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.

She added: “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.”

Human-animal transmission

The concerns are not unsubstantiated. Tigers, lions, hyenas, and critically endangered western lowland gorillas have all caught the virus.

In September, 13 western lowland gorillas tested positive for COVID at Zoo Atlanta, Georgia.

They were thought to have caught the disease from a staff member.

In January, eight gorillas at San Diego Zoo caught COVID-19 from an infected zookeeper.

Last month, several animals including gorillas and lions at Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands also tested positive for COVID-19.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the issue of animals catching COVID-19 on its website.

It wrote: “Most of these animals became infected after contact with people with COVID-19, including owners, caretakers, or others who were in close contact.

“The virus can spread from people to animals during close contact. People with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife.”

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