Category Archives: Diseases

Ian Redmond – Sorry, Gabon is closed today

Thursday, 3rd September

I bought a ticket on local airline CEIBA for a flight at 1300, then took a taxi to explore the local bushmeat markets in Pointe Noir. The only animals in the first market were massive Merou fish being filleted among crowded fruit and veg stalls, so we quickly moved on. Pointe Noir main market is a warren of narrow passageways between stalls selling every conceivable product, and I struggled to keep up with my guide without knocking over the displays with my camera-bag.

Once past the smoked and salted fish section, the stalls were piled with portions of wild animals – porcupines, pangolins, cane-rats, antelopes and monkeys.  It brought to mind the game butchers where I grew up in Beverley, Yorkshire, where venison, rabbits and pheasants were usually on display. 

The difference (apart from the variety of species) was that the African bushmeat trade (link to www.4apes.com/bushmeat) has grown to unsustainable levels as commercial hunters gain access to previously inaccessible forests.   I chatted to the traders to ask what other species they sold, and whether there was still a demand for ape meat.   They were quick to explain that inspectors from the Ministry of Water and Forests came by every week to check, and that no endangered species were sold.  They had been well informed by the nearby Jane Goodall Institute sanctuary, Tshimpounga, and no longer sold chimpanzee or gorilla.  “But surely older people who have always eaten it must still be trying to get some?” I said.   “They have to change their meat!”  came the reply.   I asked if he would say that on video for the YoG website, and he said he would but felt it would be better coming from the President of the Bushmeat Traders.  When introduced, the President agreed to speak on video, and once we get these HD video files compressed and on-line, you’ll see what he has to say. Mind you, it contrasts sharply with the recent exposé by Endangered Species International, reported at http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8256000/8256464.stm

 Legal bushmeat stall, Central Market, Pt Noire, Congo. Photo Ian Redmond.

Africa’s Green Heart – a new film by Steve O Taylor, partially supported by the CMS (UNEP’s Convention on Migratory Species), which includes dramatic bushmeat sequences, will soon be available from the Ape Alliance.  It is hoped that this educational resource will stimulate discussion in schools, governments and among the various interested parties in this complex issue.

Enforcing existing wildlife law is a crucial and immediate challenge in the fight for gorillas’ survival. The YoG supports a project in Congo Brazzaville. Find out more about the project here! You can also donate for it through this site.

Got back to the airport in good time to check in, get my passport stamped and just as I was putting my pocket contents into the basket for the X-ray the word came through that Gabon was closed due to the post-electoral disturbances.  The presidential elections had been close with all three main candidates declaring victory, and the situation was tense.  The next flight to Libreville wasn’t until tomorrow evening, so not wanting to waste a day and a half, and being advised that there were more flights to other range states from Malabo (the second scheduled destination), I decided to take flight anyway.

Once we were off the plane in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea on the island of Fernado Po, a friendly young customs officer seemed to think a transit visa wouldn’t be a problem once the Comisario returned to his desk and asked me to wait.   I waited. 

I could see how busy everyone was; two women sat in the corner deep in conversation, two men stood huddled over a laptop exchanging messages with someone, somewhere (I sneaked a peek) and a young guy with a games console plugged in next to the non-functional metal-detector got to the next level, did a little dance, then grinned sheepishly at me before returning to slay whatever monsters next came his way.  

No-one seemed to have within their job description ‘assisting stranded passengers’.   Now and again I’d experiment to see where exactly ‘the point they shall not pass’ was, and I’d catch someone’s eye, or a different uniform would walk through, so I would ask if I could please have a transit visa or a receipt for my passport so I could go and find a hotel for the night.   “Attendez s’il vous plait,” came the reply. 

The Comisario was a big man and once he realised he had a room full of passengers next door he took charge.  In French and Spanish he asked, “where are you all going?“   The babble of destinations was confusing, so he told everyone going to Nigeria to sit here,  to Benin, sit there, and so on.   People obediently sorted themselves geographically as his assistant collected their passports.   That was much tidier, so he walked back to his office.   There was a moment’s silence before everyone looked at each other and burst out laughing. 

I followed him to his office – well furnished with a big desk and well-upholstered leather armchairs – and tried to explain that the tidy room full of people were just here until the aircraft sitting on the tarmac outside was ready for take-off.   My situation was different and to find the next flight to one of the countries I needed to visit a travel agent, probably tomorrow, so please could I have a transit visa and all would be well.  He eventually got the message and extracted my passport from the pile, then placed it in isolation on a separate part of his desk and asked me to wait.   

I tried the ace up my sleeve, and showed him my UNEP-CMS Ordre de Mission, which listed Equatorial Guinea and asks ‘To Whom it May Concern’ to assist with a visa for my mission.   He called the flight controller down and they conferred, then the flight controller apologised and led me past the tidy but increasingly angry passengers (now rebelling by re-sorting themselves and saying they’ll never fly woth CeiBA again), upstairs to the VIP lounge where he left me in splendid isolation.   Here I could enjoy the well-upholstered leather sofas and ornate gilded glass coffee table, upon which a hostess presented me with a cold tonic (sadly no gin), and I was left alone.   But there was power, and comfort, so I blogged until I was falling asleep, then curled up under my kikoi and got some kip.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Kampala to Kinshasa

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

August 25th – Have you ever tried packing while a curious young mind wants to know what each of your belongings is for?  Gladys’ son Ndhego was fascinated by the contents of my rucksack and camera-bag, and I was happy to explain but simultaneously had to convert myself into some semblance of an Ambassador for a Ministerial meeting.

My (ever so slightly crumpled..) suit and safari boots had to replace my usual shorts and sandals, but Ndhego was stomping around in my boots. We achieved a truce when I presented him with a YoG sticker and my old gilet (now replaced by the one from Park National Kahuzi Biega, courtesy of the warden).  And to further lighten my load, I gave Gladys the page proofs of Planet Ape for her conservation education work and accepted a lift to the British High Commission.  

The area in which Mountain Gorillas live has one of the densest human populations worldwide, Picture Ian Redmond.

The British High Commission had fixed up a meeting with Hon Serapio Rukundo MP, Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, and he was his usual ebullient self, giving a great YoG interview on Uganda’s forest policy and plans for reforestation projects as well as the central role that gorillas play in the nation’s economy thanks to tourism.

Ian Redmond meets Hon S. Rukundo, Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Kampala, Uganda. Photo Ian Redmond.

After shopping for an external hard drive on which to back-up all these interviews, I was dropped at the bustling bus station.  Seeking the fastest bus to Kisoro, there was some discussion and I climbed aboard an earlier bus to Kabale rather than wait three hours for a late bus direct to Kisoro which wouldn’t arrive until 2.00am.  Crowds of people carrying all manner of luggage were jostling between the colourful buses; every so often a bus would shunt back and forth, belching black fumes in an umpteen-point turn, and yet amazingly no-one was squashed (and there were no fist-fights today!).  

Some time later than promised, our bus began the delicate manoeuvring towards the totally crowded exit and – inches at a time – we slowly escaped into the equally crowded street.  The conductor had placed me near the front, and just before we left, a young man sat next to me.  As we picked up speed leaving the traffic jams of Kampala behind, we introduced each other and I asked if he knew this was the UN Year of the Gorilla. He did! 

Brian Ahimbisibwe, student on bus. Picture Ian Redmond.

Brian explained he had heard it on the radio (in fact in a report from my press briefing the night before the Great Ape Health Workshop, which I attended for UNEP/GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership) and at first had found it difficult to believe, “It was as if someone had woken up one day and announced that this is the International Day of the Hen!” he grinned.  I asked if he’d say that again on camera, and he gave a great YoG interview, going on to say how on reflection he saw that it was a good idea, and that gorillas need the attention such campaigns bring.  

Though not an accomplished flute-player yet, this Mountain Gorilla needs all the attention he can get, Picture Ian Redmond.

Over the next few hours, we got to know each other quite well and bit by bit he revealed his story. He had just finished high school and won a place at University to train as a social worker. His father had died when he was two weeks old, and his mother died a few years later.  He had been brought up by first one aunt then another, but none of his relatives could afford the fees (about £1,000 per year for three years).  His ambition is to work with children orphaned by disease, because he knows what they are going through – and something about his quietly determined manner makes me think that somehow, he will succeed….

It was getting dark as we sped along, and somehow this transformed the ‘Express’ bus into a giant Matatu (the shared taxis in East Africa that stop and pick up and drop off passengers anywhere).  It was nice of the driver to drop people off near their homes but as a result, it was nearly 11.30pm when we pulled into Kabale. My laptop battery was flat and my own batteries were flagging a bit, so I checked into the Skyline Hotel for a princely 15,000 USh (about $7) – with electricity, a clean bed, en suite shower and a loo that flushes – can’t be bad!

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – VACCINAPE

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen and Biologist Fabian Leendertz study gorilla diseases, Pic Fabian LeendertPosted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

One afternoon of the Great Ape Health workshop, August 21-23, was spent discussing methods to vaccinate apes against such deadly natural diseases as Ebola, or against diseases that humans might bring, such as ‘flu.  Many captive gorillas, we were told, are given an annual ‘flu vaccine as a precautionary measure but this has not yet been done to wild gorillas.  

A vaccination-scheme could help protect Mountain Gorillas from potential outbreaks of Ebola. Photo Ian Redmond.

There is an ethical debate about whether this is an unacceptable level of intervention in a natural ecosystem, but the majority of those present seemed to agree that if human activities are causing the problem, humans should attempt to solve it.  And although Ebola might be natural, the repopulation of an area after an outbreak is more difficult since humans have fragmented the forest and in many places, bushmeat hunters will still kill any survivors.  

Paradoxically though, Ebola seems to have a greater impact where gorillas are not hunted, because densities are higher and this enables the disease to spread more easily.  But vaccination of gorilla populations at risk from the advancing Ebola wave is now a serious option thanks to Peter Walsh and colleagues in a project called Vaccinape (http://www.vaccinape.org/). 

They are working on oral vaccines for unhabituated gorillas (if they can find a bait that wild gorillas want to eat) and vaccines to be delivered by darts or so-called biobullets (biodegradable material with the vaccine inside) for gorillas who can be approached. Not only might this save whole populations of gorillas, it will greatly reduce the risk of Ebola outbreaks in humans – many of which have been traced back to someone handling or butchering an infected ape they found in the forest.  

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen and Biologist Fabian Leendertz, Pic Fabian Leendert

As such, it would seem to me that the costs of Vaccinape should be shared by human health agencies, because as Richard Preston graphically described in The Hot Zone (http://www.richardpreston.net/books/hz.html) if one of these emerging diseases mutates to be better able to survive out of the host’s body, enabling it to spread by droplet infection, H1N1 would seem like a walk in the park in comparison…
 
The links between human and gorilla health is the focus of a relatively new NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (www.ctph.org), that recently won the Whitley Award (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tDRbZ80OAY).  Founded by Uganda’s best know wildlife vet, Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, it recognises that there is a three-way connection between human health, domestic livestock and wildlife. As people and their animals are increasingly living in close proximity to dwindling natural habitat, the health of the whole eco-system needs to be addressed. 

A recent study of E. coli bacteria in gorilla dung, for example, found strains showing resistance to antibiotics (available without prescription in Uganda) that can only have come from the local human population. Gladys and her team work to improve treatment of people and livestock around gorilla habitat as well as the wildlife in that habitat, and introduce health measures to minimise the risks of cross-contamination. 

After the workshop finished, Gladys and her husband Lawrence kindly hosted me for my last night in Kampala. Lawrence is a telecom specialist and is seeking to launch a new Gorilla Calling Card that would bring a sustainable source of revenue to expand this important work to other gorilla habitats.  We could have talked all night, but I had to finish reviewing Desmond Morris’s new book ‘Planet Ape’ for BBC Wildlife, and we all had an early start the next day.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Deadly Diseases

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

The risk of droplet infection with new viruses is of global concern with the spread of H1N1 swine ‘flu virus, so soon after the H5N1 bird ‘flu.  Measures already in place to minimise the risk of such transmission to habituated apes include refusing a visit to anyone showing symptoms, the ‘no closer than 7m rule’ and preventing tourists from leaving any foreign objects, litter or bodily fluids (unless buried deep) in the park.

Some sites have gone further and request that tourists wear surgical masks for the time spent near the apes.  We do not know the mortality rate that such viruses might cause if they were to spread through a gorilla group, and whilst any such loss would be a blow to a small population, it is likely that most infected animals would recover and there-after be immune to that strain of ‘flu. 

The ‘worst nightmare’ scenario for all involved with the Mountain Gorillas is the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the Virungas or Bwindi; we know from Western Lowland Gorillas that Ebola kills ninety something per cent of those infected – approximately one third of the western gorilla population has been killed by Ebola in the past decade or so.  

The 7 m rule aims to prevent spread of diseases from humas to gorillas. Picture by Ian Redmond.

The promising tourism site at Lossi in Congo Brazzaville suffered in this way when the habituated animals died of Ebola, and the evidence suggests that there is a front of outbreaks, moving northwards towards the region with the largest concentration of western gorillas (see animation by Peter Walsh, and YoG interview to follow). Ebola has not yet been reported in eastern gorilla populations, but during the Great Ape Health workshop in Uganda, August 21-23, I learned that there was a close call recently with the closely related Marburg virus.
 
A Dutch tourist fell ill a few days after returning from a holiday in Uganda last year, and sadly died. Tests in the Netherlands revealed that she had contracted Marburg, and when her itinerary was examined, virologists concluded that she had most likely picked up the virus whilst visiting the Python Cave in the Maramagambo Forest. 

This is a fantastic place for any naturalist – a collapsed lava tube with a roost of Rousette’s Tongue-clicking Fruit Bats and pythons that coil around the rocks on the cave wall to snatch bats out of the air as they pass. I have taken tours there myself, and then – just as this lady did – gone on to visit the gorillas in Bwindi.  The difference is that this poor unfortunate woman was unknowingly incubating Marburg haemorrhagic fever when she reportedly came within 5m of the gorillas (http://www.cdc.gov/eid/content/15/8/1171.htm).  

Neither Marburg nor Ebola can survive long out of the body, and fortunately, neither the gorillas nor any of the 130 or so people she came into contact with were infected. But this tragic case should act as a warning, and simple measures such as introducing disinfected boot dips and asking tour companies that plan to visit the caves, to do so after seeing the gorillas would further minimise the risk.

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Coughs and chills may kill gorillas, but ebola wipes out whole populations

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond. Pictures will be added soon!

The idea of health care for wild gorillas might seem strange – especially in countries where human health care is so limited, and there are too few veterinarians for domestic livestock, let alone wildlife.  But ever since Dian Fossey asked the Morris Animal Foundation to help provide veterinary expertise for the mountain gorillas there has been a dedicated team of animal health professionals doing just that.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project has become a central part of the conservation efforts for the species, and since ebola became known as one of the major threats facing Western Lowland Gorillas and Central Chimpanzees, great ape health has risen up the agenda.

This is not as esoteric as it may sound to some people. Humans and the other great apes have such similar biochemistry that many pathogens can easily flourish in both. Diseases that we catch from other animals are known as zoonoses, and the list of zoonotic diseases seems to be growing.

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen taking samples, Picture Fabian Leendertz.

Not only can we catch diseases from other apes, but with the rising number of tourists coming within coughing distance of habituated gorillas and chimpanzees, we pose a risk to them too. And with sanctuaries filling up with confiscated animals and seeking suitable release sites, the risk of sending diseases from captive animals into a wild population also needs to be considered, as does the risk faced by immunologically naïve ex-captives being released into forests full of pathogens against which they have little resistance.

To discuss these issues from a conservation perspective, the Great Ape Health Workshop was convened in Entebbe, Uganda from 21st to 14th August.   Part scientific symposium, part practical workshop, this was probably the biggest gathering of ape health experts and fieldworkers to date.   I had been asked to chair the afternoon session of the first day, and having studied gorilla parasites in the 1970s, was delighted to do so.

When thinking about biodiversity conservation, we should remember that protecting large animals also protects the many fascinating species that live in or on them – if there were no gorillas, the species specific gorilla lice, mites and worms would have no-where to go!  For four days, there were a lively exchanges of ideas and new technological developments, and much renewing of old friendships and building new ones.  It was also a great place to grab YoG Blog video interviews (though please bear I mind it might be a while before they appear on the site).

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here!