Magazine article Geographical

THE eBOLA STORM: While It Was the Impact on Civilian Populations That Generated Most of the Headlines during the 2014-2016 Outbreak in West Africa, Humans Weren't the Only Species Devastated by Ebola. Stuart Butler Reports on How the Region's Ape Colonies Are Desperately Struggling to Recover

Magazine article Geographical

THE eBOLA STORM: While It Was the Impact on Civilian Populations That Generated Most of the Headlines during the 2014-2016 Outbreak in West Africa, Humans Weren't the Only Species Devastated by Ebola. Stuart Butler Reports on How the Region's Ape Colonies Are Desperately Struggling to Recover

Article excerpt

Meliandou in southern Guinea is a village like a thousand others in Africa. Its red-tinged mud huts huddle together under the shade of centuries-old trees. Chickens busily peck at the dust while children run around playing tag. Early in December 2013, two-year-old Emile Ouamouno had been playing with a free-tailed bat he'd found on the ground. Four days later the toddler was dead.

By the end of the month his mother, elder sister, grand-mother and a health care worker who'd tried in vain to help the family were all also dead. It was the start of the 2014-16 West African Ebola pandemic and in the months that followed TV screens around the world were filled with images of international medical workers treating the dead and dying across a swathe of West Africa.

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In June last year, the World Health Organization announced that Guinea was finally free of Ebola. The virus had claimed over 2,500 human victims in the country and more than 11,000 across western Africa. But aside from the well-documented impact on humans, the virus also had a less well-known, yet no less devastating impact on our closest cousins: the great apes of Africa.

CHIMPANZEE RESEARCH

Guinea has the largest population of chimpanzees in West Africa. An estimated 20,000 eke out an increasingly perilous existence here. Habitat loss is, most people assume, the biggest threat to chimps, gorillas and bonobos, followed by the bush meat and exotic pet trade. However, some scientists and conservationists suspect that right now the single biggest threat to the continued survival of Africa's apes is actually Ebola.

An estimated 77 per cent of chimpanzees that catch the virus die of it and, in certain areas, a staggering 95 per cent of gorillas (numbers in excess of 5,000) succumb to the disease. For humans the mortality rate stands at 50 per cent. Some conservationists have even, controversially, said that since the early 1990s, a third of all wild chimpanzees and gorillas have been killed by Ebola. Most recent estimates put the number of gorillas left in the wild at around 100,000.

Some 200 miles east of Guinea's sprawling, polluted capital of Conakry, sits the Parc National du Haute-Niger, a 1,200 square kilometre national park. To reach it requires hours of driving across flat, busy coastal plains, followed by buckling and bending roads up to the edge of the cool and green Fouta Djalon highlands before descending again into hotter and drier countryside. Villages become ever more scarce until eventually you found yourself driving through parched open woodland heading towards one of the country's most important protected spaces and base of operations to chimpanzee expert, Christelle Colin, the executive director of the French-run Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzes.

The centre aims to re-introduce chimpanzees captured for the exotic pet trade back to a life in the wild. Many of the chimps rescued by project staff are physically unwell and psychologically disturbed (the majority were ripped from their mothers arms as babies) and have forgotten how to live in the wild. It takes years, often around a decade, to re-equip the chimps with all the skills they'll need to make it alone in the forest. As Colin sits under the shade of a drooping forest tree and talks about Ebola, four tiny chimpanzee babies play rumble-tumble games around her.

'We know very little about how Ebola actually works in the wild because when it hits a population of apes normally all we find is just the carcass of a chimp or gorilla,' she explains. 'We think that the contamination is passed on from fruit bats. The bat takes a couple of mouthfuls of a piece of fruit and then a chimpanzee or gorilla comes along and eats the rest of the fruit and contracts the virus.'

Colin goes on to explain that although chimps in Guinea often have no choice but to live in close proximity to villagers, during the 2014-16 human outbreak of Ebola, the virus hadn't actually been detected in the animals. …

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