As we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us sheltering in our homes while we witness devastating losses around the world, it can be very easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. As discussed in Part 3 of our ‘Did you Know’ series, the emergence of the SARS CoV-2 virus and its rapid spread throughout the world, is in fact, a real-time example of our intrinsic connection to nature and animals, and how our use of shared environments impacts the health of all.

Recent research has shown that disease emergence (like COVID-19, caused by SARS CoV-2) and pandemic risk is directly connected to human-induced habitat loss and impacts on wildlife populations1. As Rachael Bale, Executive Editor of National Geographic’s Animal Desk, succinctly stated: “When nature is sick, we’re sick.”

But there is cause for hope. We are not powerless. Now that we all intimately understand the impact of our collective choices, our individual choices can now become a collective solution.

Silverback mountain gorilla, Uganda, 2019. Photo by Skyler Bishop © Gorilla Doctors

Dian Fossey was one person whose individual choices led to collective action. When she called the world’s attention to the plight of the mountain gorillas, Gorilla Doctors soon followed by providing individualized veterinary care to mountain gorillas starting in 1986, when there were fewer than 250 remaining on the planet. Today, thanks to the collaborative efforts of government leaders, many NGOs and stakeholders, mountain gorillas are the only great ape in the wild whose numbers are increasing.

As you learned in Part 2, our veterinary care is credited for half of the annual population growth rate of habituated mountain gorillas, and more than 90% of our gorilla patients recover from respiratory infection after Gorilla Doctors’ intervenes to provide treatment.

Dr. Eddy and ICCN veterinarian treat a blackback Grauer’s gorilla, DRC, March 2020. © Gorilla Doctors

Global Guardians

Gorillas are an umbrella species for the thousands of animals, insects and plants that make up their surrounding ecosystem. Protecting them protects the entire ecosystem. With a One Health approach, this extends to the humans who benefit in many ways including health and livelihoods. When gorillas are healthy, we are healthy.

But would you have ever guessed this also extends to killer whales?

Gorilla Doctors’ succeeds in providing ‘personalized’ health care to individual mountain gorillas because:

1) the majority are accustomed to human presence and they live in national parks;

2) they are individually identifiable (gorilla nose prints are like human finger prints in their uniqueness);

3) they are a tourist focal point;

4) there is a global interest in their long-term conservation.

As it turns out, there is a population of killer whales (Orcinus orca) living halfway around the world from gorillas, in the Salish Sea, that are similar to these criteria. This particular population of less than 100 individuals, known as Southern Resident killer whales, is unique because each whale is known and recognizable by the shape of its dorsal fin and a white “saddle patch” on its back.

Southern Resident killer whale, Salish Sea. Photo by Winston Rockwell © SeaDoc Society

In 2016, Gorilla Doctors’ Executive Director & Chief Veterinary Officer, and Co-founder of the SeaDoc Society (both Gorilla Doctors and SeaDoc Society are programs of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis), worked with the SeaDoc Society team to advise on how our One Health approach for health monitoring, data collection and when/if to conduct clinical veterinary interventions on an ill or injured gorilla, could be applied to the Southern Resident killer whales of the Salish Sea. These whales are endangered and declining, so the health of each individual whale is essential to the survival of the population as it faces other threats such as declining food sources.

One World, One Health

So, keeping gorillas healthy can translate to helping keep killer whales healthy, and both are globally loved species that help protect the ecosystems in which they live. But at this point you may be asking, what does this have to do with me? Believe it or not, quite a lot. Gorillas are susceptible to human pathogens. Human garbage that makes its way into our oceans impacts the health of marine mammals like killer whales. Regardless of where you live and whether or not you ever see either of these animals in the wild, our actions can indirectly impact their health and long-term survival.

Furthermore, both mountain gorillas and orcas are examples of the thousands of endangered species around the world. In 2019, the UN released their Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in which they warned one million species were at risk of extinction.

This potential loss of biodiversity has significant health consequences for us humans. According to Dr. Christine Johnson of UC Davis’ EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics, the loss of species diversity from over-exploitation and deforestation increases the risk of viral spillover. As well, this loss also favors species that can adapt to human-altered environments and serve as carriers of zoonotic disease (e.g. rats), also increasing the risk of spillover1.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic, most likely caused by the SARS CoV-2 virus spilling over from a wild animal to humans, is our new reality, we understand the connection between, and value of, wildlife conservation and human health more than ever before. And understanding this connection is exactly why we are not powerless. We can shift our behaviors to live more sustainably, we can change the way we interact with wildlife, and we can make choices that serve our collective global health.

It’s all connected. When nature is healthy, we’re healthy.


Looking for some immediate ways to reduce your environmental impact? Check out these resources:

The 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce your Carbon Footprint – State of the Planet – Columbia University

Sustainable Energy for a Sustainable Future – UC Davis Big Ideas

How to Reduce your Carbon Footprint – The New York Times


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1Johnson, et al. (2020). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287: 20192736