By Kezio-Musoke David
KIGALI (Reuters) - A virus that causes respiratory disease in humans has been linked to the deaths of critically endangered mountain gorillas in east Africa, a U.S. veterinary research group said Wednesday.
Tissue samples from two gorillas that died in the forests of northern Rwanda in 2009 were infected with the human metapneumovirus (HMPV) virus, according to The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
The research also found that the frequency and severity of respiratory disease outbreaks among mountain gorillas straddling Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo was increasing.
"We report conclusive evidence for association of a human virus with death in mountain gorillas. Viral RNA in multiple tissue samples from the adult female indicates that she was infected by an HMPV strain at the time of her death," it said.
With a total known world population of 786, the gorillas are one of the region's biggest tourist attractions. Visitors pay hundreds of dollars to trek through dense forest and get within meters of the great apes.
Their numbers have risen by more than a quarter in the last seven years, a sign conservation efforts are paying off although perhaps at a cost.
"Although human proximity to mountain gorillas is essential for their conservation, also crucial is minimizing the risk for human-to-great ape transmission of respiratory pathogens," the report said.
"Because there are fewer than 800 living mountain gorillas, each individual is critically important to the survival of their species," the project's executive director Mike Cranfield said.
(Editing by Richard Lough)