Flat on her back on a gurney, the chimpanzee is an unsettling sight: Around 130 pounds, the animal is limp, with drool pouring from corner of her mouth, a common side effect of sedation. She looks helpless, like a patient laid out on a hospital bed. But this chimp isn’t hurt; she’s been anesthetized, knocked out so a veterinarian can give her an experimental vaccine against Ebola—a disease that’s been quietly devastating Africa’s primate population since long before last year’s outbreak began.
The most recent Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, but smaller outbreaks have been erupting at least since the 1970s. Ebola is a zoonosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people, and by some measures its impact on animal populations has been even more dramatic than its effect on the people of west Africa. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but some conservationists estimate that Ebola has wiped out around a third of the world’s wild chimpanzees and gorillas over the past few decades.
Peter Walsh, the wildlife biologist spearheading this vaccine project, is trying to find a way to protect the rest. Walsh is a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge, but to do this work he’s come to the New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It’s the largest primate-research facility in the United States, with more than 6,500 animals on site. Around 230 of those animals are chimpanzees; the rest are mostly macaques, capuchins and green monkeys.