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The effect the coronavirus could have on some of Africa’s most threatened animals.

It’s now impossible to read a newspaper or watch a news broadcast that does not mention the coronavirus. In recent months the coronavirus has swept across the globe, wreaking havoc and leaving devastation in its wake. Our lives have all been been affected. Loved ones lost. Routine broken. Life as we know it has changed. The bigger picture is worth consideration, we are but a small piece of nature’s ever evolving puzzle. Here we will look at the effect the coronavirus could have on the pangolin, rhinos and the great apes; some of Africa’s most threatened and poached animals.

The pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, is currently the world’s most trafficked mammal. Pangolin meat is a delicacy in many Eastern countries and the scales are used in herbal remedies. According to WWF, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed between 2011-2013, although some experts argue these figures likely only makes up 10% of the actual number trafficked. Pangolins have been making the headlines recently for another reason. Findings from a recent paper published in the journal ‘Nature’ identified SARS-COV-2 in Malayan pangolins. These alarming results imply that pangolins could be hosts for coronaviruses. It is recommended in this paper that pangolins be removed from markets to prevent transmission to humans.

Needless to say, these findings may be a small silver lining on an otherwise very dark cloud. If the demand for pangolin meat decreases hopefully so will the capturing and illegal trafficking of this vulnerable and unique animal. However, it is too soon to make such assumptions as the opposite could also become a reality. With growing populations of sick people, the demand for pangolin scales and other vulnerable animal parts for traditional remedies could increase.

A pangolin or scaly ant eater emerges from its hole in the sand.
A pangolin or scaly anteater.

The growing use of traditional remedies is also a grave concern for the world’s rhino populations. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails, and is believed in many Eastern countries to cure anything from the common cold to cancer. It is worth noting here that there are no scientific findings to back this belief. Nevertheless, centuries of tradition are hard, if not impossible, to break. It goes without saying that during these unprecedented times there is likely to be increased demand for rhino horn in Asia. This, coupled with the fact that most National Parks and reserves across Africa have recently had to close their gates to tourists as a result of the coronavirus, puts rhinos in a dire situation. The presence of tourist traffic in national parks and reserves is mostly a welcome addition to anti-poaching patrol efforts. Without the extra eyes and ears on the ground some a worried that poaching events could increase. The loss of jobs and income in neighbouring communities and a need to support families only fuels this fear.

Three white rhinos grazing on the open savannah plains of Africa.
Three white rhinos grazing.

Closeup of a white rhinos horn where you can see the hair follicles in the horn.
Closeup of a white rhino's horn.

The dangers of transmitting this deadly disease from one human to another are now well known. Recent findings suggest that humans can also pass on this disease to animals. Several dogs in Hong Kong recently made the headlines after testing positive for the coronavirus, as did a tiger in Bronx Zoo in New York. These findings do not bode well for our closest living relatives; gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, the great apes of Africa. It is currently unknown as to how these cousins of ours would be affected by an outbreak of the coronavirus. Rather worryingly past research shows that they can contract the common cold and thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas were thought to have been killed by the Ebola virus. In a recent letter written by scientists and published in ‘Nature’ it has been recommended that all great ape tourist and research activity is reduced, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda has since been closed to tourists. This is obviously the best immediate course of action, however, it is also noted in this letter, much like the rhino situation, that with less human presence, poaching incidences could be higher. The Uganda Wildlife Authority will certainly be hard hit as sixty percent of its revenue is generated from gorilla tourism.

A gorilla in thick dense foliage of the forest, taken in Bwindi National Park, Uganda.
A gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
Chimpanzee rests on a tree in the forest canopy.
A chimpanzee rests on a branch under the forest canopy in Kibale Forest National Park, Uguanda.

It is without doubt that humans will not be the only species affected by the coronavirus. The knock on effect to some of Africa’s most threatened animals has the potential to be catastrophic. Moreover, as we lose jobs and have to tighten our purse strings, animal charities, National Parks and NGOs will battle to stay afloat. We are indeed only a small piece of nature’s puzzle, but sadly many pieces surrounding us will also feel the brunt of this deadly virus.

**All views expressed are the authors own.

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