Our Cousins Are Sick

By Carl Zimmer | April 2, 2009 11:51 am

Bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives. Unfortunately the entire species has dwindled down to a few thousand survivors, all in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This morning I got a worrying email from Vanessa Woods, a bonobo expert who’s at a bonobo research facility in DRC:

In the last month, a flu epidemic has hit the bonobo sanctuary where we work: Lola ya bonobo (www.friendsofbonobos.org). It is the only bonobo sanctuary in the world, with over 60 orphans from the bushmeat trade.

The virus has infected over 20 bonobos and counting, and has already killed four. Another 3 have died, we aren’t sure of the cause, so it could be as many as seven, which means the sanctuary has already lost over a tenth of its population.

The symptoms are a dry cough, followed by a runny nose. But then the bonobos start hyperventilating, it’s like they can’t get enough air. They die as quickly as 72 hours after the initial symptoms. The problem is, the virus hasn’t seem to run its course, it’s been through the nursery twice, and is bouncing back and forth between the enclosures.

The only enclosure that is safe is the quarantined bonobos who will be released back into the wild in June this year.

Bonobos, known as the peaceful ape, are also the most endangered, with as few as 10,000 left in the wild. They share 98.7% of our DNA, like chimps, but unlike chimps who have murder, rape, and war in their societies, bonobos communities are female dominated and have very little violence. Their similarity to humans is why the virus could jump so quickly.

Lola ya Bonobo is critical to the conservation of bonobos, both through education (30,000 Congolese visit the sanctuary every year, most of them school children) and the release project which will be the first time bonobos have been released into the wild.

The economic crisis has also hit Congo, and the sanctuary is down $33,000 for food this year. No food = no medicine, and the drugs and equipment to treat this kind of epidemic are expensive.

If anyone has heard of anything like this illness in great apes, please write to v.woods@duke.edu. If people would like to donate, please visit www.friendsofbonobos.org/support.htm .

 [Image from Friends of Bonobos]


Comments (9)

  1. Michael D.

    From the email, it is not clear if the “flu” they describe has been definitively diagnosed or established as being caused by the influenza virus. Is this the case?

  2. cr

    H5N1 has been in Africa for years – we Are in a Pandemic Alert.
    H5N1 is a multi-mammal species and can infect rodents, cats, dogs, pigs, primates -“potentially any carnivore” FAO said, March, 2006.
    It also can survive in water as fomites at certain temperatures.

    I hope the staff is taking better precautions, and, that actual testing and diagnosis happen soon. (Poor bonobos.)

    H5N1 in humans is remaining fatal unless Tamiflu is started within 48 hours of symptom onset (or sooner; for contacts of suspected/known cases) and it seems to be at least a 10-day course of Tamiflu needed; until viral shedding stops. (Indonesia does it until they rapid-test, “negative”, and then, claims they weren’t H5N1 cases. Lately, Indonesia just says they died of something else- but then use H5N1 coffin protocols- monitor neighborhood health, door-to-door for 21 days; can’t hurt tourism!)

    Young healthy immune systems seem to get cytokine storm from H5N1; as with the 1918 virus.
    Many index cases of human clusters up and died without ever making it to a doctor – and often get left off “official” tallies.

    The so-called “Brisbane” strains of seasonal flu are also worse than the usual, even to the young and healhty, but, they mostly all have a Tamiflu-resistant gene snip, and a gene that increases chance of pneumonia.

    (What is the seasonal influenza vaccine coverage of those Congolese schoolchildren, btw?)
    School families in the US are not being told how to prepare in case of an H5N1 Panflu Year; I suppose things are the same or worse in the DRC.

    What protection does the staff use for the bonobos in quarantine?

  3. The Chip

    The Chimpanzees, are your Cousins not my

    [CZ: Wow. My first comment from a non-human. ;- ) ]


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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