Primates in Peril

The Ebola virus has caused a massive die-off of gorillas and chimpanzees in central Africa.

Because humans, chimps and gorillas share over 90% of their DNA, they also share the ability to contract the deadly Ebola virus. This disease, which was first recognized in Africa in 1976, causes death through massive blood loss in up to 90% of its hosts. Spread through bodily fluids, Ebola is particularly dangerous for highly social animals like primates.

At the end of November, scientists working with the ECOFAC program in the Republic of Congo recorded the first Ebola-related gorilla deaths in the current outbreak. This month, they reported that 139 gorillas in the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary have died or disappeared from their study area since December. Tissue samples from four of these gorillas, as well as from two chimpanzees, confirmed the presence of Ebola in all six cases. The epidemic appears to be spreading east toward Odzala National Park - home to the densest population of lowland gorillas in Africa.

Meanwhile, Ebola has claimed over 50 human lives in nearby towns. Villagers likely contracted the disease initially by eating meat from infected primates. Local authorities are trying to teach people not to view primates as a food source - for their own sake, as well as for the sake of the endangered apes. Currently, there is no known cure for Ebola in humans or other primates.

Female Lowland Gorilla
Female Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) with baby.
Photo: Buff and Gerald Corsi; CAS Special Collections
Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) at the Sweetwaters Game Reserve, Kenya.
Photo: Buff and Gerald Corsi; CAS Special Collections
Ebola Virus
Ebola virus. Photo courtesy of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)