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Launching the "Protect Great Apes from Disease" Project

Chloë Chesney


Non-human great apes are particularly vulnerable to catching infectious diseases from humans. Though wild great ape tourism can assist conservation efforts, the health risks are well documented. With the emergence of COVID-19 reviving concerns for disease transmission, the “Protect Great Apes from Disease” initiative was born.

“Protect Great Apes from Disease” logos for orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas (left to right).

A western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) sitting in a tree (Ceiba pentandra) in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau. Photo credit. Joana Bessa


The problem of COVID-19 and the great apes

The emergence of COVID-19 has revived concerns for the impact of disease on wildlife, especially our closest living relatives, nonhuman great apes. They are particularly vulnerable to catching infectious diseases from humans due to our close genetic relatedness, exacerbated by close contact due to human activities such as tourism.


All African great ape species - bonobos, chimpanzees, eastern gorillas and western gorillas - are listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with all sub-species, except the mountain gorilla, declining. Great ape tourism occurs in many of the great ape range countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and can assist conservation efforts through the provision of economic benefits. However, the health risks of tourism to great apes are well-documented, with human respiratory viruses being a main cause of death.


I, Chloë Chesney, write this from Cantanhez National Park in Guinea Bissau where I am currently delivering the “Protect Great Apes from Disease” initiative in collaboration with the Bissau Guinean Institute for Biodiversity and Protected Areas (IBAP). The “Protect Great Apes from Disease” team has grown since conception but at it’s core consists of me (hi), Dr. Kimberley Hockings, Dr Elena Bersacola and Maia Wellbelove (University of Exeter), Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (Conservation Through Public Health, Uganda) , Dr. Fabian Leendertz (Helmholtz-Institute for One Health, Germany), Dr. Amanda Webber (University of West England), and Dr. Ana Nuno (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Portugal).


In January 2020 we received three months of funding from the Darwin Initiative. The main idea behind the project was to determine “how best to protect wild African great apes from SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) in tourism contexts?” with the aim to produce education materials that would mitigate the risk of disease transmission.


The idea, though big, was simple. What/where/when is the risk? What/where/when are the appropriate mitigation measures? And who is responsible for enforcing them?


Better understanding the problem

First, we needed to understand the problem and to do this we needed to know the risks, responsibilities and willingness to undertake disease mitigation measures by not only tourists, but the guides working at wild great ape tourism sites.


We started with an online survey (available in English, Portuguese, German, Mandarin, Italian, French and Spanish) aimed at any self-identifying past or potential future wild African great ape tourists… we wanted to reach at least 1000 participants - easy, right? Within our circles this seems like pretty much anyone… who wouldn’t want to visit wild African great apes in the wild if they had the opportunity? We contacted organisations, groups and individuals through social media and email. After the first week we were feeling confident we would reach our goal of 1000 but then uptake started to slow. Eventually, after refreshing the “count” page what felt like a million times we got there. On day 40 we closed the questionnaire with 1046 people having taken part. I felt relief. I also felt excitement about the data and how it would translate into well-informed, multimedia, freely available, multilingual education materials.


January 2021: The inevitable happened

Around this time, the scientific community was grappling with the idea that nonhuman great apes could contract SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and suffer similar effects to humans. Then the first confirmed case was reported. In fact, eight captive gorillas tested positive and whilst all recovered, one required medical intervention. We obtained better insight into what could happen in the wild… ‘ish’… but at least there was broader attention, beyond the primate conservation community, now being given to the topic.


The plan develops…

So, we prepared questionnaires for guides at great ape tourism sites and sent out emails to online survey participants to partake in follow-up semi-structured Zoom interviews. The next month or so of my ‘lockdown’ life consisted of (1) streams of emails between myself (at the desk at the foot of my bed) and people working at great ape tourism sites (what I had been doing pre-lockdown) in West, Central and East Africa asking if they would be willing and able to conduct interviews with the great ape tourism guides they worked with, and (2) spending no less than 983 minutes (over 16 hours) on Zoom uncovering further, qualitative, details that would help to piece together the quantitative information collected through the survey. These hours of Zoom recordings translated into triple that in transcribing hours and, as the short days of February and March began to get longer, the data collection elements of the project drew to a close.

Darwin Project Officer/IBAP Maimuna Jalo interviewing a chimpanzee tourist guide, Mamadu Cassama, in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau. Photo cred. Americo Sanah


Data collection completed!

With 1046 online survey responses, 45 guide interviews and 24 in-depth interviews (wow – thank you, thank you, thank you!) under analysis we began more serious discussions on what to do with all this information to maximise protection of not only wild African great apes in tourism, but the guides, the tourists and everyone (and everything) in between. Following the workshop, we unanimously decided to include all infectious zoonotic diseases and not limit the project to solely SARS-CoV-2. . It was agreed that this would avoid a problematic situation where tourists thought disease risk is absent once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. We also now know that human respiratory viruses have resulted in chimpanzee and gorilla deaths at many tourism sites. Promptly, we broadened the focus to include all transmissible diseases including SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). The project changed from “Protect Great Apes from COVID-19” to “Protect Great Apes from Disease”.


Education Materials

And so, development of the education materials began. We started with the logo and agreed on one that can represent diseases, all great apes and their protection. After much discussion, the plan was laid out. We would work with a web designer (https://www.masideas.es/) to develop www.protectgreatapesfomdisease.com. The website would contain two pages:


- A page for tourists to explain great apes, the risk of disease, and not only list but provide additional information on all appropriate disease mitigation measures and a pledge to inform and promote adherence in multiple ways (images/text/video),

- A page for operators containing all other education and training materials for free download and application in any site.


So, what education materials would we make? What would be on them? How could the data we collected be best applied in their development?


We decided – following lengthy consultation with our data, literature, a workshop we held and endless examples we found online on developing multiple options (language, format, audio/visual etc.) – to target different audiences on different parts of their journey in different ways. The messaging methods would alter but the message content would be consistent, and in line with IUCN Best Practice and COVID guidelines.


We worked with a graphic designer with experience of conservation in West Africa (http://jimmy-colors.com/en/) on the development of posters that can be adjusted to suit individual sites i.e., a version for gorilla sites and a version for chimpanzee/bonobo sites and the option to insert your own logo.

English versions of the posters. All three posters are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.


We also decided, after conversations with guides and tourists about the barriers to communication common during wild African great ape trekking, that a ‘permanent’ poster may not wholly fulfil the need for communication aids during trekking and that an additional ‘portable’ communication tool, i.e. a booklet, would be optimal. The resulting booklet contains all information required during trekking in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese and with clear images to facilitate non-verbal communication.

Back (left) and front (right) pages of the guide communication facilitation booklet.


We also worked with a videographer (http://onehealthproductions.com/). The main video, is of great ape disease experts explaining the importance of adhering to the presented disease prevention measures. The video is in spoken English with subtitles in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish.


Two videos are also being made that are specific to chimpanzee trekking sites in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, spoken in English and Portuguese, respectively, and with subtitles also in French. These videos feature experts from these countries and footage from these countries of wildlife and landscapes. In sites in West Africa these videos will be hosted on tablets along with an offline, interactive programme similar in style and content to the website available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.


Training Materials

The above materials focus on tourists but don’t worry, we didn’t forget the great ape trekking tourist guides. For them, we developed a training presentation in PowerPoint and script, which provides information of the “Protect Great Apes from Disease” initiative, details up-to-date health protocols and great ape trekking best practice guidelines and empowers guides to feel confident enforcing the regulations. The training presentation directs guides on how to use the education materials and the guides partake in role-play where they must sufficiently handle ‘difficult tourists/situations’. On completion, they receive a certificate.

Chimpanzee guides in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau during the role play segment of the training. Left: Guides simulate disinfecting shoes before trekking using ‘lead by example’ and the printed materials; from left to right: Djibi Abu Indjai, Lamine Sane, Armando Cumara (behind), Pansao Mbunde (in front) and Iaia Ture. Right: Guides simulate a chimpanzee in the tree and a tourist wanting to get closer to the chimpanzee for a better photo – out of shot another guide is explaining what to do to the ‘tourist’ (right); Iaia Tawei Camera (‘tourist taking a photo’), Mamadu Cassama (‘chimpanzee in tree’). Photo credit. Chloë Chesney

So, there you have it. These are the education and training materials developed for the “Protect Great Apes from Disease” project.

Posters in every room of the tourist accommodation at AD in Iemberem, Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau (left). Larger posters are also at the restaurant where pre-trek briefings take place and where tourists may view them at any time (right). Photo credit. Chloë Chesney


Posters at the Culture and Environment Centre in Guilledge, Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau. Photo credit. Chloë Chesney


Going forward…

So, here I am in Cantanhez National Park where the posters will be displayed across four protected areas and the roads to them from the capital city (Bissau). So, where do trekking guides come in?


Through interviews with guides in West, Central and East Africa, three main points were identified to consider: education, communication and empowerment.


Firstly, guides must know the guidelines. The guide training materials we prepared covers all internationally recognised best practice disease guidelines for great ape tourism. For this education to be effective, understanding how, why and when is also important.


Secondly, guides must be able to communicate even in the presence of language barriers. For this, we prepared ‘Poster 3’, a guide communication poster that facilitates pre-trek briefings, a booklet for ongoing, transportable communication throughout the trek, and activities during the guide training practicing acting out, without the use of words, disease mitigation measures e.g. how to wear a mask properly, how to cough/sneeze into the crook of your elbow and the distance to be maintained between people and great apes.


Thirdly, guides must feel empowered – this is a bit more of a challenge. Guides for the very informal, infrequent, and inexpensive kind of tourism here in Cantanhez National Park have almost a totally different job to that of guides in highly organised, daily and expensive tourism in say, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. To do our best with limited time and funds we are delivering the guide training in both places. After seeing how this goes, what feedback and questions we get and so on… the training can be evaluated and improved to be as suitable as possible for wild African great ape tourist guides from East to West (again, within the time/funding availability).

Chimpanzee guides in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea Bissau with certificates of training for “Protect Great Apes from Disease”. Photo credit. Chloë Chesney


This initial data collection answered a lot of our questions but also left some unanswered. What about the tourists who weren’t willing to do the online questionnaire? What about the people involved indirectly in wild great ape tourism such as accommodation staff or drivers? What about people that share great ape habitats? I could think of 100 more questions. This work has really just begun.

To follow our work please check the website www.protectgreatapesfromdisease.com, Twitter @GreatProtect, Facebook & Instagram @ProtectGreatApes and if you have any questions please contact protectgreatapes@gmail.com.


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