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Ebola! What would Dian Fossey Do?

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"They say 85% of statistics are made up on the spot. I think it's more like 96%." Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres's one-liner is a caveat worth applying to any extrapolations regarding either gorilla disease or gorilla numbers in war-torn Africa. The world media has hysterically latched onto a study suggesting that an Ebola outbreak in wildlife sanctuaries which straddle the border between Gabon and the Republic of Congo killed over 5,000 lowland gorillas in the period between October 2003 and January 2004. Primatologist Magdalena Bermejo and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology present evidence (Science 8 December 2006; Vol. 314 no.5805 pp.1522-1523) that the Ebola virus, which has also killed dozens of people in the same region, has attacked gorillas in the Lossi Sanctuary region in much higher numbers than previous estimates. There are two glaring problems with the extrapolations on the study: there is no accurate count of the numbers of lowland gorillas in the world, and there are many areas of the Congo interior that are completely inaccessible, whether due to location, civil strife, or a combination of both. The Max Planck study certainly has value, but it is only one board in a structure that may turn out to be a house of cards as conservation organizations and conservation-funded studies are held to a higher standard of scrutiny.

All peer-reviewed studies hold value, but they do not always offer either a solution or the complete truth of the matter. World media has all but ignored the effects of logging, poaching, wildlife smuggling, and the bushmeat trade on gorilla and other primate populations. Conservation NGO's are creating political fiefdoms which run tribal populations from ancestral lands as more and more conservation "preserves" are created. You won't find these stories on CNN. Public relations fluff pieces, yes, but there have been no mainstream reports from Walikale, the so-called arm-pit of the planet, and other remote areas where warlords, smuggling and unimaginable poverty rule an ecosystem flush with wildlife and even more precious resources ripe for the taking.

The Ebola story may or may not have legs. But on a slow news weekend it is sexy news, especially since bird flu is temporarily off the world radar. The human misery in Darfur has become tedious to the western world, but the toll there is far worse than the threat of Ebola, and thus a moral conundrum is created that all would rather avoid. The recent clashes around the town of Sake in eastern DRC caused barely a ripple in the world press, even though there was an Armageddon-like element of excitement when the Nyamulagira volcano erupted and stopped the advancement of the rebel troops, narrowly averting a humanitarian disaster. But Ebola! That grabbed everyone's attention.

The vector of Ebola transmission has been a mystery, but recently a consensus, not proof, has emerged in scientific circles that it is spread by a combination of a reservoir species, such as bats that can spread the disease without becoming infected, or by species-to-species transmission. The Bermejo study points to a species-to-species transmission, which is very significant. The problem, as always, arises in the interpretation of the data by extrapolation techniques.

Virologist Stuart Nichols of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA was quoted in Science as being impressed with the recent study because it shows that "it looks like" species-to-species transmission is occurring. However, he finds fault with the extrapolation techniques that lead to the scary 5,000 plus number of dead gorillas. "The researchers tested only 12 carcasses," Nichols is quoted in Science, "nine of which tested positive for Ebola. If this were a human outbreak, you would want to see a lot more testing." While Nichols offers a personal opinion that the researchers are "probably right," this does not offer a sound foundation upon which to find a solution or even a stop-gap.

In this case, scientists are calling for yet another massive infusion of dollars into research and possible vaccination programs from foundations and private donors--all of this without an accurate count of the target population, or even an assessment of location. The release of untested vaccines into the wild offers an even greater risk of a Pandora's Box that will eventually explode in unanticipated ways.

Dian Fossey once wrote that she worried that whenever a new statistic regarding gorilla deaths was published, that people would "evangelistically climb onto a save the gorilla bandwagon," without fully examining the implications of the statistics. Her worst fears were realized when tourism was introduced as a conservation money-making venture that exposed the gorillas to human disease, and the resultant habituation of the mountain gorilla population forever changed the gorillas' relationship with human primates. It is noteworthy that the core of the Max Planck study group was habituated for tourism and there has been a subsequent hue-and-cry over the loss of "ecotourism investment." The world gorilla population, whatever it is, cannot endure money-seeking conservationists' attempts to have it both ways.

Fossey's words are a clarion call for caution.
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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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