Emerging infectious diseases are of great concern to both humans and wild ape populations in the Congo Basin. In particular, drastic declines in ape densities following repeated emergences of Ebola in Gabon and Congo have shown clearly that this virus poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of great apes in central Africa. Ebola outbreaks in humans have been associated with declines in local ape populations, and ape remains recovered near outbreak sites have tested positive for the Ebola virus. The natural host of Ebola continues to elude researchers, despite attempts to discover its identity over the past 30 years.
The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project has developed a strong relationship with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Health Program and is actively involved in implementing the Regional Ebola Action Plan to address the threat of Ebola in the Sangha Trinational Region. The most valuable information on the epidemiology of Ebola virus has come from timely research (direct observations and transect surveys) in epidemic zones. Although Ebola has never been detected in the Ndoki forest, the Goualougo base camp is equipped with a carcass sampling kit and five members of the field staff have been trained by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Health Program to sample carcasses. Our continuous forest surveillance and extensive field effort have contributed greatly to creating baseline trends and facilitating sampling of fresh ape carcasses in the region.
Assisting in the Evaluation of Potential Ebola Control Measures. Repeated outbreaks of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (EBOV) across Gabon and the Republic of the Congo have devastated local gorilla populations, with concentrated lethal spillover events to local human populations. The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project has developed a strong relationship with the Wildlife Conservation Society-Global Health Program (WCS-GHP) to maximize existing expertise, field staff and infrastructure to ensure cost-effectiveness of initiatives to implement a Regional Ebola Action Plan. Goualougo Triangle Ape Project has assisted WCS-GHP in compiling ape survey data from the Odzala-Kokoua National Park region and designing computer simulations to evaluate potential models for the origin and spread characteristics of EBOV in northern Congo. Assessment of factors such as habitat, human activity, gorilla and chimpanzee population densities will provide a more detailed understanding of the combination of covariates that favored this location as an origin point for the EBOV epidemic and may have influenced subsequent spread dynamics.
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Parasitological Screening. Selective logging results in a suite of alterations in host ecology and forest structure that may alter pathogen dynamics in resident ape populations. In addition, environmental pollution with human fecal material may present a risk for wildlife infections with zoonotic protozoa such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia. To better understand this interplay, ongoing research in the Goualougo has focused on comparing patterns of infection with these potentially pathogenic protozoa in sympatric western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. These studies provide a baseline for prevalence of these protozoa in forest-dwelling African apes and have allowed us to better understand the impact of logging on ape health in forests neighboring the Goualougo Triangle but outside the park border (Gillespie et al. 2009).
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Standardization of Observational Health Monitoring. Observational health monitoring is an important aspect of great ape conservation, particularly in the Congo Basin where disease outbreaks have significantly reduced chimpanzee and gorilla populations in recent years. Goualougo Triangle Ape Project Research Assistants have been trained in great ape health monitoring protocols, including standardized observational data collection of physical condition. With the technical support of the Lincoln Park Zoo the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project ape health data are incorporated into the online IMPACT system for observational monitoring of wild apes which was designed by the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Program and recently modified to include observational data from wild chimpanzee populations in Gombe National Park. This monitoring program has been successfully used to monitor ape health in the mountain gorilla populations and gather solid evidence on which to base intervention strategies for reducing disease transmission in these wild apes.
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Wild Animal Mortality Surveillance. The most valuable information on the epidemiology of Ebola virus has come from research (direct observations and transect surveys) in the epidemic zone which underscores the importance of field sampling. The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild Animal Health Monitoring Network and have attended four carcass sampling workshops. The Goualougo base camp is equipped with a carcass sampling kit and five members of the field staff have been trained to sample carcasses. Our continuous forest surveillance and extensive field effort have contributed greatly to creating baseline trends and facilitating sampling of fresh ape carcasses in the region.