Taking care of these primates is daunting work, and margins are thin in a good year. Sanaga-Yong, like most of the 22 other facilities in a network known as the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, is sustained by international donations and the labor of visiting volunteers. But now the sites, in 13 countries, are facing a new existential threat: the rapid worldwide spread of covid-19.
The pandemic has already had a profound effect on zoos and wildlife refuges around the world, ending public visitation, reducing staff and requiring special protocols to prevent the spread of a virus that has been passed from humans to dogs, cats and even a zoo tiger. But facilities housing primates are a particular concern, scientists say, because of the animals’ established susceptibility to human respiratory diseases, and because all great apes are endangered in the wild.
“My worst fear right now is that covid-19 gets into the sanctuary,” said Sheri Speede, founder and director of Sanaga-Yong, about nine hours from the capital city Yaoundé. “And if we get it in there, everybody’s going to get it. ”
Viruses, some of which have been traced to humans and cause only mild symptoms in people, have sickened and killed apes in several African countries. In 2019, a respiratory infection swept through Kenya’s Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, infecting 39 animals and killing two.
“Something that’s sort of like a bad cold for us can be lethal for great apes,” said Gregg Tully, executive director of the alliance.
Speede has seen her share of respiratory illness outbreaks in her chimps over the last 20 years. “It’s really sad,” she said. “You see them all in a group coughing and coughing, and snotting, and not eating, and you’re struggling and struggling to get them to take medication. ”
And for the novel coronavirus, of course, there is no treatment.
The pandemic is already complicating daily operations at primate sanctuaries in other ways. Lockdowns and travel restrictions have cut off volunteers and visitors, disrupted food and medical supply lines, and forced some staffers to stay home and tend to their families.
Speede herself is stuck in the United States, having traveled home for a four-month visit in November. Cameroon has since closed its borders. The sanctuary’s staff of 30 is holding things together, she said.
Everyone who comes within six feet of the chimps at Sanaga-Yong now wears a mask, Speede said. Food preparation takes longer because the staff is spending even more time washing fruits and vegetables in both soap and a bleach solution. Deliveries are dropped off at the gate, about half a mile from the camp.
Employees still must go to local villages about three times a week to gather food — all while maintaining as much social distancing as possible. Some supplies simply must be imported, though.
“Chimps fight,” Speede said. “And those injuries have to be treated, and we need anesthesia for that. ”
One of Speede’s chimps is an older female with advanced heart failure who requires four medications. One-third of the facility’s female chimps take daily birth control pills to ensure the captive population doesn’t produce any new animals.
Typically, Speede purchases six months’ worth of those supplies in Spain, but coronavirus has put a halt to that. When Speede couldn’t send her usual DHL shipment from Spain, she ordered the medications in the United States — at a far higher price.
Food is another struggle. The Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa facility is nestled within 56 forested acres outside the town of Tzaneen, making it an ideal place to quarantine, said director Josie du Toit. But its fruits and veggies are normally sourced from small farms nearby that sell nonmarketable produce at a large discount. Those farms are now closed due to a lack of demand, so the foundation is buying at markets, where prices are eight times higher, du Toit said.
Staffing and funding are also major concerns.
“We’re not only losing our people on the ground overnight, but also a huge source of our funding,” said du Toit. “Volunteers have actually been giving close to 90 percent of our funding to help the 550 monkeys in our care every day. ”
Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa, has yet to confirm a case of covid-19. That’s little solace to staff at the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, 400 acres of savanna and rainforest that make up the nation’s only wildlife sanctuary.
“We have got enough money to get through maybe the next three to six months,” said programs director Kate Moore. “After that, who knows?”
Because Malawi is an international hub for wildlife syndicates, Moore said she worries about an increase in trafficking while law enforcement attention may be diverted elsewhere. The bushmeat trade could grow if people have to turn to alternative sources of protein and income due to the closure of markets and shipping, she said. And with fewer employees and rangers in sanctuaries and other protected areas, poaching could rise. All of these changes could lead to more orphaned primates, which make up 70 percent of the animals Lilongwe cares for, Moore said.
Sanctuaries outside Africa are stressed as well. Edwin Wiek, director and founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said his rescue center is “in stormy weather right now.” With more than 700 animals, including orangutans and elephants, the facility’s food bill is upward of $800 a day.
“This is our third month in trouble and if this continues another 3 months (and it looks like it will) we will be out of business I am afraid, unless a miracle happens,” Wiek said in an email. “Hopefully we will find a wealthy and generous sponsor soon so we can keep going. ”
Wiek said he could be forced to euthanize some or all of his animals if the crisis persists.
In Africa, most of the sanctuary alliance’s organizations would not consider that an “ethically acceptable” solution, Tully said. But the alternatives are complicated and costly.
To relocate just one gorilla or chimp requires import and export permits, health assessments from government veterinarians, personnel to tranquilize and handle the animal, and a small army of trucks, boats, and even airplanes to move it to another facility. Many of the African sanctuaries house hundreds of primates each.
The sites are “used to working in challenging conditions and dealing with emergencies that happen pretty regularly in Africa,” Tully said. But, he added, “If this continues until the end of the year — I don’t even want to think about it. Sadly, we could be facing the very real possibility of some of these sanctuaries shutting down. ”