Although tourism and tourism can suppress poaching and habitat destruction, recent studies by ApesInc and collaborators also provide the first evidence that gorilla stress hormone secretion by gorillas rise sharply when followed closely by humans. This is a serious problem because high stress hormone titers are linked to immune system suppression. In partnership with longtime collaborator Magdalena Bermejo, ApesInc has just launched a study using non-invasively collecting (fecal) samples from gorillas in Republic of Congo to find habituation and tourism practices that minimize psychological stress to gorillas. This project is partially funded but we are looking for additional funds, particularly to support a postdoctoral fellow to conduct laboratory analyses.
We are also investigating the use of fecal Herpes virus concentration as alternate metrics of immune suppression. Herpes titres rise in response to chronic stress and are relatively easy to assay using fecal assays that are more robust and replicable relative to hormone assays. There is also potential for assay in onsite field laboratories, which allow real time stress monitoring rather than just post hoc data analysis. We are currently conducting a small pilot study but need funding for a full blown analysis of samples collected during our measles vaccination study on wild gorillas.
Onsite Pathogen Screening
Over the last decade infectious disease has joined bushmeat hunting and habitat loss as a major driver of African ape decline. Much of the damage has been caused by “naturally” occurring diseases but ourism and research are now accelerating rates of ape mortality because the habituation of wild gorillas and chimpanzees to close approach by humans produces a high risk of human respiratory disease spillover. In fact, about half of deaths in habituated gorillas and chimpanzees can be traced to human respiratory disease spillover.
ApesInc seeks to evaluate whether new molecular diagnostic methods can be harnessed as weapons to fight disease spillover into habituated gorillas and chimpanzees. In particular, we propose to evaluate whether humans can be rapidly screened for respiratory pathogens. The combination of new non-invasive disease assays requiring only saliva and inexpensive testing equipment should now make it possible to identify which tourists, staff, or researchers are infected with high risk pathogens within a few hours of their arrival at an ape tourism or research site. Data from this study will also be used to identify high risk pathogens and make recommendations about appropriate disease management responses, including policies such as quarantine periods as well as medical responses such as vaccination or treatment of staff or habituated apes.