Batting for Bats

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 4, April 2020

By Rohit Chakravarty

The world is currently battling a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude. As of April 15, 2020, COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has already infected more than 20 lakh people and caused over 129,000 deaths worldwide. The disease has put several countries under lockdown and suppressed global trade – the economic fallout of which we are yet to fully witness. Apart from humans, another group of animals has suffered at the hands of this viral outbreak – bats.

When COVID-19 emerged, supposedly, at a wildlife market in Wuhan in central China in December 2019, scientists began quick investigations into its origins. Their preliminary findings suggested that the coronavirus SARS CoV-2 that causes this disease perhaps originated in bats. This led to a stream of misreported media coverage in countless languages all over the world implicating bats for COVID-19. Sensational WhatsApp forwards – something most Indians trust more than their eyes – led to widespread hysteria and killing of bats globally. But bats have lived in close proximity to humans since time immemorial, so why are we only now hearing of disease outbreaks? Are bats really to be blamed?

After preliminary research pointed to bats as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass killings of bats ensued. But are bats to be blamed -- or do we rather turn to the wet markets and take a look at their unsanitary conditions and inhumane practices?

To find the answer, we go back to the wet market in Wuhan. Here, an assortment of wild animals from all over the world are brought in cages, stacked one over another in unsanitary conditions. For a virus that lives, for example, in a bat, this is the perfect opportunity to find a new host from where it can make its journey into a human body. In the case of COVID-19, this intermediate host was possibly a pangolin, a supposition that is being backed by growing scientific evidence. Pangolins are currently the world’s most trafficked animals. They are consumed as a delicacy in China and Southeast Asia, and their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The most recent study suggests that the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumped from a bat into a pangolin which may have been consumed by a human being, thereby paving the way for the global pandemic that we are currently facing.

This is not the first time that a disease has been linked to bushmeat consumption. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2003 in China -- unsurprisingly, in another wildlife market – was transmitted through civets which were infected with a coronavirus that originated in bats. In fact, the infamous Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), was also first transmitted to humans through the consumption of chimpanzees and other primates in Africa.

The solution to preventing pandemics like COVID-19 lies in mitigating wildlife trade -- not only in China, but the entire world. Several economically-deprived and forest-dependent indigenous communities depend on bushmeat for their nutrition so this complex social problem requires innovative solutions. As for bats; in these testing times, we must give them the respect they deserve. We need to educate our parents, friends and family about the role of bats and debunk the fake news that is constantly being spread through social media. 

Bats are crucial pollinators of important cash crops. Killing bats now will only augment the world’s financial problems. Moreover, bats feed on harmful pest insects, including mosquitoes. We surely don’t want to kill the animal that helps us sleep peacefully through this lockdown, do we?

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