“Dian, if ever you are going to contact gorillas, you must follow their tracks to where they are going rather than backtrack trails to where they’ve been.” ~ Alan Root, photographer

This quote comes from Dian Fossey’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, as she recalled Alan’s gorilla tracking advice. It was January 6, 1967 and she was setting up her first research camp along the slopes of Mt. Mikeno in Virunga National Park. Dian goes on to say this was a lesson she never forgot and it has been on my mind lately; we don’t know what a post-pandemic world looks like yet, but I do know we can choose to follow the tracks to a new future for gorilla health and conservation.

With COVID-19 we find ourselves at a conservation crossroads. Respiratory infection has always been one of the leading causes of mortality in gorillas (second only to trauma). As we have been reporting the last several weeks, we do not know if gorillas are susceptible to SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease in humans. However, given our close genetic relationship and that we know gorillas have been infected by other human respiratory pathogens, it is prudent to assume they are at risk.

In addition to the temporary suspension of gorilla tourism, park authorities and key stakeholders are all implementing additional safety measures. Daily fever checks of park staff and our veterinarians, increased distance from gorillas during their observation (from 7 to 10 meters), mandatory use of face masks, frequent hand and boot-washing, proactive educational efforts, and our continued veterinary care of ill and injured gorillas, are all aimed at protecting the health and survival of the gorillas.

If we are successful in protecting mountain and Grauer’s gorillas from COVID-19, we will learn from this moment and we can follow the tracks forward – we can make these safety measures for protecting the health of both gorillas and people a permanent best practice. Imagine a future where we have an overall decrease in illness, and thereby healthy, thriving and growing eastern gorilla populations. This is a future where we could acknowledge that we did not backtrack – rather, we all blazed a new trail.