A huge issue that scientists face when dealing with endangered animals is testing whether a disease is present in the population, without actually disturbing the animals. In the case of mountain gorillas, this is a huge concern since there are roughly 880 left, with approximately 60% of these gorillas being accustomed to humans.
In the Virunga Conservation Range, where these primates are found, they are being used for ecotourism purposes. Although ecotourism is intended to help conservation efforts and the economy, it increases the primates’ likelihood of being infected with human pathogens. Infectious diseases that are introduced by humans have become a huge threat to these gorillas, especially RNA viruses. The most likely type of virus to be transmitted from humans to wildlife are RNA viruses.
The traditional method for testing primates is to anesthetize them and take blood samples, oral swabs, and rectal swabs. However, this becomes an issue for these endangered mountain gorillas, because this procedure disrupts their natural behaviors and can put them at a higher risk of contracting a disease. In a study conducted by the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), researchers collected and analyzed plant samples that were chewed and discarded by wild mountain gorillas in order to detect for both RNA and DNA viruses that were orally shedded. It was found that this was an effective and noninvasive method to monitor the mountain gorillas’ health.
Although a test has been developed to detect viruses in these endangered apes, how will it be implemented, and to what degree? There is the concern of funding, as well as other factors. This study was conducted by UC Davis, which I presume is more concerned about these endangered mountain gorillas and has more funding for testing related needs in comparison to the countries where these primates are found (Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). In these countries where government corruption and instability are high, how likely is it for people to put time and money into conservation efforts when there is ongoing civil conflict within the country? Even if a disease is detected in mountain gorillas, is there a treatment plan? Additionally, it is likely that the mountain gorilla populations also have to endure the stress of poaching, war, habitat destruction, and predators, which could cause a decline in the already low population.
News article from Science Daily can be found here.
Original research can be found here.