Selfie-Takers May Be Spreading COVID-19 to Gorillas

The next time you find yourself wanting to take a selfie with a gorilla, you may want to think twice: a new research study has found that tourists who try to take pictures with wild mountain gorillas could be putting the animals in danger of getting COVID-19 and other diseases.

In a paper published in the journal People and Nature, scientists from Oxford Brookes University in England share how they looked at hundreds of Instagram photos from tourists visiting gorillas in East Africa and discovered that most of the people in the pictures were an unsafe distance from the wild animals.

The researchers focused on the search results from two hashtags, #gorillatrekking and #gorillatracking, posted to Instagram between 2013 and 2019. Of the 18,000 photos gathered, 858 contained people with gorillas.

Search results for #gorillatrekking on Instagram.

Analyzing those 858 photos more closely, the scientists found that 86% of the images showed people within 4 meters (13.1 feet) of the gorillas. In 25 of the photos, the tourists were even touching the gorillas. Only 3% of the tourists shot selfies at a safe distance of 7 meters (~23 feet).

Selfie-taking women were found to stand closer to gorillas than men, and the average distance between humans and gorillas shrank by 1 meter in the 6-year span that was studied.

“Social media is known to have a huge influence on people’s attitudes and behaviors,” Oxford Brookes University lecturer Magdalena Svensson tells Courthouse News. “Seeing other people’s amazing selfies with wildlife encourages others to also get closer to wildlife to get the perfect shot, normalizing abnormally close distances to wild animals.’

There are only around 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild.

“The risk of disease transmission between visitors and gorillas is very concerning,” says study lead Gaspard Van Hamme. “It is vital that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure gorilla trekking practices do not further threaten these already imperiled great apes.”

It is now known that gorillas can develop COVID-19 — eight gorillas a San Diego zoo tested positive in January 2021 — and the scientists are warning that face masks should always be worn when visiting gorillas.

“In the photos we analyzed, we found that face masks were rarely worn by tourists visiting gorillas and that brings potential for disease transmission between people and the gorillas they visit,” Svensson says in a statement. “With people all over the world getting more used to wearing face masks we have hope that in the future wearing face masks will become common practice in gorilla trekking.”

Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Dorthea Olson

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