In March 2020, hundreds of bats hung crowded in cages in a market in the Indonesian city of Surakata. They waited wide-eyed to be killed and sold as meat. But Covid-19 was spreading, and people in Indonesia and elsewhere were soon blaming bats. The city authorities decided the bats could not be sold, but rather than releasing them into the wild, they gassed them and threw them into a fire pit, cages and all.
The animals were targeted in what bat biologist Merlin Tuttle has called a “viral witch hunt”. While bats do carry many viruses, there is no evidence yet that they transmitted to people the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. But thanks in part to false stories about the virus originating in bat soup, and to media coverage of a ‘bat-borne virus’, there has been a rise in anti-bat sentiment around the world. This has led to attacks on bats and calls for culls. Now scientists are fighting back. They want us to know that, rather than endangering us, bats bless us in many ways.
Bats eat insects that harm crops or transmit diseases to people and livestock. They pollinate economically and culturally important plants. They disperse the seeds of thousands of plant species, planting the forests of the future. To economies, bats provide services worth billions of dollars. To ecosystems, and so to us all, they are priceless. Yet we are driving hundreds of their species towards extinction, through hunting, habitat loss and heat. The new coronavirus is adding to their threats.
Fear that bats will spread the virus has led people in China to demand that the authorities remove hibernating bats from their houses. It has led people in Singapore to throw live bats down a rubbish chute. It has led people in Egypt to set fires in an abandoned building, killing a hundred fruit-bats with thick smoke. Antipathy towards bats has also increased in Peru and the United States.
“The backlash is very real,” wrote bat ecologist and conservationist Sheema Abdul Aziz in March, in an article for Rice. It warned that culls are misguided, ineffective and could potentially make things worse. “I was alarmed by the usual premature speculation and associated scaremongering around bats that always happens after a new disease outbreak,” she told me. “I felt I had to issue a warning before the situation got much worse.”
“Direct transmission of viruses from bats to humans is very rare,” says Sheema, who is president of a Malaysian conservation organisation called Rimba. “We need to explain to people how culling will increase disease risk and accelerate disease transmission, not prevent disease.”
It is true that bats can carry several viruses that have jumped the species barrier to infect people in recent years — including MERS, SARS, Hendra and Nipah. But this does not mean bats are to blame. As Merlin Tuttle pointed out in Issues in Science and Technology in April, the first three of these viruses seem to have been spread to people by animals other than bats, while Nipah is easy to prevent.
The recent emergence of new diseases caused by viruses that originate in wildlife is more to do with human than animal behaviour. Deforestation, hunting and wildlife trade, unsanitary live markets and crowded farms all create the conditions for viruses to ‘spill over’ into human hosts and potentially wreak havoc among us. But regardless of the origins of the Covid-19 virus, it is people, not bats, that are spreading the disease.
“We have been co-existing with bats for centuries and have been largely disease-free,” says Rohit Chakravarty, a PhD candidate at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, who studies bats in the Himalayas.
“Irrespective of transmission routes, killing bats is never going to be the answer because they are animals that know how to keep their distance,” he says. “It would be more prudent to spend that effort in finding out the exact flow of virus transmission so that proactive mitigation measures can be taken.”
In April, Chakravarty and a fellow doctoral candidate called Baheerathan Murugavel joined a growing chorus of scientists urging people not to stigmatise and persecute bats. They had noticed an increased occurrence of people killing bats and destroying their roosts, in fear of bats spreading the coronavirus. To debunk myths and dispel fears about bats and covid-19, they organised a press statement — signed by 64 bat biologists from across South Asia.
“We should be educating the public to peacefully co-exist with the animals around them instead of getting them culled,” says Murugavel, who is doing research on bats at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, in Thiruvananthapuram.
Another scientist warning of a backlash against bats is Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China. Writing in the journal Science in March, he warned that: “The exaggeration of bats’ negative traits without regard for their positive ones could ultimately lead to their needless and intentional elimination.”
“Most people do not realize that bats’ populations are decreasing more than ever across the globe,” says Zhao. “We should do our best to convince people that bats are in need of protection more than ever.”
He told me that bats would have a better reputation if more people knew about their positive ecological importance and how research into their unique adaptations can help humanity in fields as diverse as cancer prevention, healthy aging and engineering.
“Communicating how wonderful and amazing bats really are should be a top priority,” says Sheema Abdul Aziz of Rimba. Ultimately, we need to find ways we can get people to fall in love with bats, and really start caring about bats.”
Sheema Abdul Aziz: ‘Covid-19: The public scapegoating of bats needs to stop’
Merlin Tuttle: ‘A viral witch hunt’
Joint statement: 64 South Asian bat biologists bust myths about bats and Covid-19
Huabin Zhao: ‘COVID-19 drives new threat to bats in China’
Bat Conservation International: ‘ FAQ on bats, coronaviruses and zoonotic disease’