Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for coronavirus in what are believed to be the first known cases among great apes.
The park’s executive director, Lisa Peterson, confirmed eight gorillas that lived together in a troop at the park were believed to have the virus and several had been coughing.
Faeces from all eight had been taken for testing, and positive test results in three thus far had been confirmed by the US Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories.
It appeared the infection had come from a member of the park’s wildlife care team who also tested positive for the virus but was asymptomatic and wore a mask at all times around the gorillas.
The park has been closed to the public since December 6 as part of the state of California’s lockdown effort to curb coronavirus cases.
Veterinarians were closely monitoring the gorillas and they would remain in their habitat at the park, north of San Diego, Ms Peterson said.
For now, they are being given vitamins, fluid and food but no specific treatment for the virus.
“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” Ms Peterson said.
Gorillas tested after they started coughing
While other wildlife had contracted the coronavirus from minks to tigers, this was the first known instance of transmission to great apes, which are inherently social, and it is unknown if they will have any serious reaction.
Wildlife experts have expressed concern about the coronavirus infecting gorillas, an endangered species that shares 98.4 per cent of its DNA with humans.
The gorillas infected at the San Diego safari park are western lowland gorillas, whose population has declined by more than 60 per cent over the last two decades because of poaching and disease, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The safari park tested faeces from the troop after two apes began coughing January 6.
Zoo officials were talking to experts who had been treating the coronavirus in humans in case the animals’ developed more severe symptoms.
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They will remain together, since separating them could be harmful to the gorillas that lived in tight-knit groups.
“This is wildlife, and they have their own resiliency and can heal differently than we do,” Ms Peterson said.
The safari park on Monday added more safety measures for its staff, including requiring face shields and eye goggles when working in close proximity to the animals.
The confirmation that gorillas were susceptible to the coronavirus contributed to information about how the pandemic might affect these species in their native habitats when they came into contact with humans and human materials, the park officials said.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park plans to share what it learns with health officials, conservationists and scientists to help develop steps to protect gorillas in the forests of Africa.