Can You Study Great Apes During a Pandemic?

In March 2020, I was part of a small team of biologists from the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation that journeyed to one of the remotest regions of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in order to investigate the long-term survival success of a newly-reintroduced population of Critically Endangered Bornean orangutans in Bukit Batikap Protection Forest.

News was growing on the spread of a novel coronavirus, but as we traveled along dirt roads and scenic rivers to our field destination, none of us predicted that we were on the brink of a global pandemic. Just as COVID-19 has negatively impacted so many people, so too has it impacted the wildlife – although those impacts are yet to be fully understood. Working to conserve orangutans, I reviewed the consequences of a pandemic on these great apes and how, going forward, we can safely study and protect them.

Great ape mother and her baby

What is Causing Great Ape Populations to Become Endangered?

Over recent decades, great ape populations (orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo) have been seriously affected by habitat loss, hunting, illegal wildlife trade, civil unrest, and disease. Numbers have plummeted across all species, which has led to their classification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered or Endangered.

Are Great Apes Susceptible to Viruses?

As our closest relatives, great apes are also susceptible to the same viruses; for example, in parts of Central Africa, Ebola led to 80% population loss of gorillas and chimpanzees. It is similarly expected that great apes are at great risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19. Coupled with the numerous other risks which threaten great apes with extinction, the impact of spreading COVID-19 from humans to apes could be devastating.

In response to the pandemic, a variety of actions have been taken: researchers and conservationists have halted or scaled down research that may result in contact with wild apes; governments have closed national parks; and great ape tourism sites and non-governmental organisations have closed doors to rescue and rehabilitation centres.

However, staying home and away from the apes isn’t always possible, particularly in rescue facilities where the animals rely on their human caregivers, or in protected areas where reducing guard patrols could potentially result in illegal hunting or critical habitat loss.

Impacts of Preventative Disease Transmission Procedures

Instead, increased preventative disease transmission procedures have been put into place to enable some essential activities to continue. But not without impact: costs for personal protective equipment and disinfectants, and in some cases food, are going up, potentially crippling the already overburdened budgets of these facilities. In addition, local people and communities are suffering both from the disease as well as the resulting loss of jobs and income from a normally thriving great ape tourism industry. This impact also extends to some state governments that rely on this tourism.

How Can We Safely Study these Great Apes?

Our team undertook our study within this context. Being extremely mindful of the risk of disease transmission between humans and great apes, we employed the use of non-invasive technology, specifically camera traps, to limit the impact of our presence and our surveys.

We had no idea we were about to live in a changed world undergoing a global pandemic. However, we are encouraged that our camera traps will remain in place, busy recording data and potentially opening up a whole new world of insights on this new population of reintroduced orangutans. At the same time, we have reduced the chance of contact and disease spread amongst our team and the great apes we are studying. Going forward, we are hopeful that non-invasive techniques will be prioritized to study wildlife species, particularly primates.

Jacqui Sunderland-Groves is a research scientist with the Faculty’s Wildlife Coexistence Lab run by Dr Cole Burton, the lab’s principal investigator. She can be reached at

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