Conservation Implications of the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

Ebola... The name creates fear in everyone, and the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa is of grave concern to our partners in the field, including the staff, volunteers, volunteers' families and funders of the Chimpanzee Conservation Center (CCC), which has been operating in Guinea, West Africa, since 1997. Their concern is justified: EVD, which can infect animals and humans, is one of the world’s most virulent diseases. The symptoms are scary, and once you have been infected, the fatality rate can be up to 90%. To date, there is no approved treatment or vaccine available for human or animal use, although an experimental serum was recently used on two Americans with apparent success.

EVD outbreaks affecting humans and animals have occurred in the past but what sets this one apart is the scale: the speed at which it has spread from its original outbreak site, Guinea, to neighboring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia, and more recently to Nigeria, and the number of deaths that have occurred. As of August 8, 2014, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed 1,779 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola and 961 suspected case deaths from this most recent outbreak, including 367 suspected case deaths in Guinea, 294 in Liberia, 298 in Sierra Leone, and 2 in Nigeria.

Some of the reasons behind the rapid spread of this outbreak include:

  • Denial over the existence of the virus, resulting in people not changing their lifestyle as needed;
  • Fear of dying, with infected people staying at home (and hence infecting family members);
  • Continued consumption of bushmeat;
  • Cultural burial practices;
  • Lack of hygiene; and
  • Lack of medical resources, both human capital and equipment.

What does Ebola have to do with conservation?

Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transferred between animals and humans. Some animal species, while acting as carriers of the disease, do not appear to be affected. These include fruit bats. Others, such as all species of primates, can be infected and may suffer similar symptoms and fatality rates as humans. In a particularly tragic case in the northwest of the Republic of Congo in 2006, for example, researchers documented approximately 5,000 gorilla deaths caused by an Ebola outbreak – equaling a mortality rate of 90 to 95%.

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus is initially transferred to humans by direct contact with tissues or body fluids of infected animals. Although experts consider fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family to be one of the natural host of the Ebola virus, many other species, including chimpanzees and gorillas – some of our closest living relatives, can also become infected and can transmit the virus to humans. In Africa, humans have contracted Ebola by handling infected apes and monkeys, fruit bats, forest antelopes and porcupines – often through the hunting and preparation of bushmeat, which is a major conservation concern for many species in Africa.


Credit: R. Ruggiero/USFWS
Illegally hunted primates awaiting transportation to a bushmeat market in
Central Africa.


Credit: Wildlife Conservation  Society (WCS)
Hazmat suit sampling for Ebola northern Republic of Congo.

 

The larger conservation connection, however, is perhaps less obvious: Ebola appears to be a direct consequence of deforestation and human disturbance. Outbreaks are linked to long dry seasons (a consequence of deforestation and climate change), during which there is scarcity of food in the forest and all the animals, including fruit bats, feed on the same remaining fruit trees, usually fig trees. Human development, including logging and mining, road construction and agriculture, is increasingly cutting back on forest habitat and bringing animals and humans in closer contact, which can facilitate disease transfer. Some even speculate that the illegal trade in apes may be the actual culprit behind the current Ebola outbreak.

Find out more about the impact of the current Ebola outbreak on field conservation work from our Great Ape Conservation Fund grantee, Chimpanzee Conservation Center (CCC)