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Global News Health

Tourists’ selfies could be spreading COVID to endangered mountain gorillas

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New research has found that tourists’ selfies may be putting mountain gorillas at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Primate conservation experts at Oxford Brookes University in the UK studied nearly 1,000 Instagram posts from people visiting the species in East Africa.

The team concluded that most travellers were close enough to the animals, while taking the photos, to transmit the virus – particularly as most were not wearing face masks.

Researchers have described the findings as “very concerning”, highlighting the very real risk of disease transmission between tourists and gorillas.

“It is vital that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure gorilla trekking practices do not further threaten these already imperilled great apes,” says lead author Gaspard Van Hamme.

“In the photos we analysed, we found that face masks were rarely worn by tourists visiting gorillas and that brings potential for disease transmission between people and the gorillas they visit,” explains Dr Magdalena Svensson, a biological anthropology lecturer at Oxford Brookes.

“With people all over the world getting more used to wearing face masks we have hope that in the future wearing face masks will become common practice in gorilla trekking.”

Last month the IUCN issued a set of guidelines asking scientists to stop sharing selfies with primates, due to concerns that the photos may be driving the illegal wildlife trade. According to this week’s research, it seems Instagram pictures may be a driving force behind the issue here too.

“Tourists are willing to share their too-close encounters with mountain gorillas through Instagram, which creates expectations for future tourists,” says Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka from Conservation Through Public Health, Uganda.

“It highlights a great need for responsible tourism to provide adequate protection while minimising disease transmission, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she adds.