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More than 5,000 gorillas may have died in recent outbreaks of the Ebola virus in central Africa, a study says.
"The Lossi outbreak killed about as many gorillas as survive in the entire eastern gorilla species," the study says.
Over the past decade or so, tens of thousands of the great apes have died of Ebola in central Africa, along with similar numbers of chimpanzees.
Ebola is transmitted by contact with body fluids, and it's rapidly fatal. When people get it, they become so sick so fast--their organs literally liquefy--that others try to stay away from them. What's more, the mere fact of their quick immobility means they can't carry the virus very far. Ebola usually burns through an isolated village or community and then has nowhere else to go.
"They defecate and urinate in and around the trees," says Walsh, leaving infected body fluids to sicken the next group. Gorillas also examine the bodies of dead apes they come upon, perhaps because they're smart enough to want to know if whatever claimed that life is a threat to them. This provides another means of direct transmission.
"We're not talking about massive vaccination anymore," says Walsh. "We're talking about getting a vaccine into key gorilla populations." And the cost? Perhaps as little as $2 million--chump change, Walsh calls it, to save our closest evolutionary kin from extinction.