Could Endangered Orangutans Face Extinction from Coronavirus?

Could Endangered Orangutans Face Extinction from Coronavirus?

Endangered primates in Indonesia might be an unexpected victim of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Primates are not only at risk of contracting the virus, but also are facing sweeping donation cuts and the closure of tourism facilities.

Orangutang explainer

Virus outbreak

Leif Cocks, founder of The Orangutan Project and recipient of the 2020 Order of Australia Medal believes that the virus poses a series threat to Indonesia’s primate population.

All great apes are vulnerable to the same diseases as humans, including novel coronavirus COVID-19. According to Cocks, an infected person could transmit the virus to an ape in the same way they could to another person. Primates share up to 97% of their DNA with humans.

Whilst Cocks says that there haven’t been any confirmed cases in the primate population yet, the public should consider it a serious risk. This is especially true for Indonesia’s critically endangered orangutan population. 

An outbreak could “potentially could be far more devastating to them [orangutans] than to the human population,” he said in a phone interview. There are only 7,500 Sumatran Orangutans left in the entire world.

This is based on a long history of diseases spreading between humans and great apes. Previously, gorillas and chimps were threatened by the Ebola outbreak in Central Africa. Great apes have also contracted Polio, Malaria and HIV-AIDS from infected humans.

Source: REUTERS/Jessica Helena Wuysang/Antara Foto

Risks to funding & donations

Aside from health risks, conservationists are also facing the threat of a reduction in donations and funding.

Primate conservationist and animal rights’ activist Willie Smits expressed concerns, saying that he is “very, very worried”, about the sudden funding and donation cuts in a recent text message.

“Things are not good”, he said, “[there are] no more volunteers for the rescue centers, no more school groups and visitors and donations [are] being retracted. For more than a month we have not been able to pay salaries for our staff.”

Garry Sundin, expedition manager at Orangutan Odysseys voiced similar worries in a recent text message, saying that the situation was “very serious”. The conservation company has been forced to cancel their tours for the rest of the year due to safety concerns about COVID-19.

“I hope Orangutan Odysseys will survive it [the coronavirus pandemic] and be able to emerge at the other end, whenever that may be,” he said.

He also indicated that the pandemic poses “problems on many fronts”. People made unemployed by the closure of tourism companies in Indonesia may turn to illegal activities to make ends meet, he suggested.

Tourism traps

Cocks believes that orangutans and other primates being held in unethical “tourist traps” have the biggest risk of contracting the coronavirus.

This is due to the unnaturally close contact with humans these operations facilitate. Legitimate orangutan conservation centers don’t allow for close contact between primates and humans without extensive testing, Cocks explained.

He also suggested that the “professional” primate-tourism establishments already have protocol in place to protect the animals. Conservationists have tightened their protocols and are “basically on lockdown”, he added.

Some other establishments have also been indefinitely closed to protect primates from the spread of COVID-19.

Tanjung Puting National Park is among those temporarily closed in “anticipation and prevention” of coronavirus.

A spokesperson from the park said that the park will reopen after the pandemic. At this point, it is unclear when this may be. The park has been closed since March 18 2020.

If you’d like to support the vital conservation of orangutans during this time, please donate here.

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