Mountain gorillas are at risk of catching Covid-19 because they share so much DNA with humans, the World Wide Fund for Nature has warned.
Congo's Virunga National Park and neighbouring Rwanda have both closed to tourists during the pandemic to protect the gorillas, who share 98 per cent of their DNA with humans.
Uganda has not shut down its gorilla tourism, but says a drop in visitors means it is now almost non-existent.
Mountain gorilla numbers have increased to just over 1,000 in recent years after a successful conservation campaign since the 1990s.
They are now the only great ape believed to be increasing in number, and in 2018 were reclassified as endangered from critically endangered.
But the WWF warned that recent gains were fragile and could “rapidly reverse” if Covid-19 hits the population. Even a common cold can kill a gorilla, according to the WWF.
“Mountain gorillas are known to be susceptible to other human respiratory illnesses, so we have to assume that they are susceptible to the virus which causes the disease COVID-19 in humans,” Africa Conservation Manager at WWF-UK, Cath Lawson said. “That means that right now, minimising human-mountain gorilla interaction, and the opportunity for disease transmission, is the priority.”
Tens of thousands visit Rwanda every year to see the mountain gorillas and tourism provides a vital income stream for both local and national economies.
Conservation efforts have now reduced to a minimum, with rangers staying 10 metres away and wearing face masks.
Visitors who have a cold or flu are not allowed to visit the gorillas as part of normal protection measures, but conservationists have warned that rules in the park are difficult to enforce and insufficient to protect the animals against coronavirus.