COVID-19 and Wildlife


Q: “Since some lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo were diagnosed with COVID-19, what about lions, tiger or other wildlife. Are endangered species at risk?”  S. B, Long Island, NY

Amur tigers at the Bronx Zoo

A: Your question isn’t completely outrageous. While we know it’s possible that big cats can get the novel corona virus SARS CoV-2 and suffer some mild signs, there’s no reason to believe this is a serious threat to big cats.

The novel corona virus is a human virus. The only known way to get this virus is from humans.  Few of us have direct contact with wild lions or tigers. Now that zoos are aware of possibility, accredited zoos have professional protocols in place and take appropriate precautions.

Big cats getting COVD-19 appears to be very uncommon. The individuals on the planet identified are were four Amur tigers and three African lions at the Bronx Zoo, and all suffered only mild signs of illness. I do worry on many levels regarding roadside menageries, which are poorly financed and poorly run, like those seen on The Tiger King on NetFlix.  What protocols do they have in place? Who knows?

Western lowland gorilla, Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

However. It’s very likely that our great ape cousins are susceptible to CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. The governments of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have temporary halted tourists trips to view the mountain gorillas. To date, the third nation where the endangered gorillas are found among the Virunga Mountains, Uganda, has not cancelled groups visiting the gorillas. Having said that, air travel to get tourists there is on hold anyway.

Gorillas (and other primates, especially our great ape cousins) are susceptible to most of the viruses that make us sick. Living in high altitude mountain homes could make the mountain gorillas even more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19 as they are to other respiratory illnesses. Of course, with only just over one thousand mountain gorilla remaining, no one wants to find out. Having said that, due to tourists dollars and increased protections, this species of gorilla (unlike all other great apes on the planet) are holding their own.

There’s no doubt that zoos are aware that primates of all kinds are likely susceptible to the novel corona virus and are taking appropriate precautions.

This is how close you get to the habituated mountain gorilla if you are in Rwanda or Uganda – we know as I took this video. The experience is life changing. We’re told to keep a certain distance from the gorillas, but they haven’t read the rules, and maybe get closer, not in threatening way just merely walking by. Enjoy these personal highlights.