Wildlife

WHY ARE BATS FACING THE MUSIC FOR SPREAD OF COVID-19 TO HUMANS?

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Dr H S Prayag & Meera Bhardwaj

Although bats, the flying mammals and humans have coexisted for millions of years in a symbiotic relationship, the origin of SARS-COV-2 virus from bats, has created a palpable sense of fear in the minds of humans that these small mammals are disease transmitters and therefore, highly dangerous. South Asian scientists and conservationists say the exact origin of SARS-COV-2  or its precursor is unknown – so it is unfair to blame bats or any other animal for the pandemic.


Image Credit: Vijay Nishanth

In a dangerous precedent, scared rural and urban masses have been destroying bat colonies roosting on branches of trees without realizing the adverse effects on the healthy relationship that exists between humans and bats. 

Even as reports of destruction are pouring in, scientific studies clearly indicate that the novel Coronavirus cannot be directly transmitted to humans as it needs an intermediate host like pangolins or civet cats or some other animal. According to scientists, it is highly unlikely for this deadly virus to jump directly from bat to humans. Further, there is no evidence of humans contracting this virus or any other through the excreta of bats.

Meanwhile, realizing the seriousness of the situation, the Karnataka Forest Department has come out with an advisory and appealed to people not to fall prey to such myths and protect fruit bat colonies that are part of our ecosystem.

NO DIRECT VIRUS TRANSMISSION

The Chief Wildlife Warden said, “It is to be noted that many living creatures harbor viruses and bacteria and this doesn’t get directly transmitted to humans. The recent discovery of coronavirus in South Asian Fruit Bats [published by ICMR] poses no health hazard to humans. The viruses found in this study are totally different from SARS-COV-2 and cannot cause Covid-19. Further, there is proof that nCoV cannot be directly transmitted to humans.”


Image Credit: Vijay Nishanth

According to recent scientific studies, it is not just bats but also rodents that harbor several viruses and cause several diseases in human beings including Covid-19, Rabies, Nipah, Ebola, etc. In the recent times, they have been the focus of most viral-detection and surveillance efforts while some scientists have even called for their close monitoring. These studies started in right earnest after the emergence of SARS in 2002-03. 

HOSTING NUMBER OF VIRUSES

Studies suggest that these animals are unexceptional when it comes to the question of hosting a number of viruses that infects human beings. Scientists from Glasgow University have even suggested looking for animal sources that are disease threats for humans and not just at specific animal groups. However, many do not agree with this theory and say concentration should be on bats and rodents for future virus surveillance and detection.

Added to this, researchers working on viruses say, “Focus should be on virus traits and how they jump on to humans. There are many theories of spillover of human virus from a variety of host. From ‘special reservoir theory’ to ‘genetic proximity’ of species even as scientists are digging into ‘species richness’ of animal orders.” 

RAMPANT WILDLIFE TRADING

Further, the most important aspect of the Covid-19 Pandemic is : How does WILDLIFE TRADING or even LARGE SCALE INDUSTRIAL LIVESTOCK FARMING and CLIMATIC CHANGES actually PUSH ANIMALS and HUMANS INTO CLOSE CONTACT and result in emergence of new and newer viruses. 

It is not just China but also countries in South East Asia and Africa that encourage and allow such wildlife markets and game hunting – in fact, they should be probed thoroughly before another pandemic hits the world.

Therefore, the need of the hour is surveillance at ‘Wet Markets’ wherever they exist as people are in close contact with dead and live animals and any spillover of viruses should be detected immediately.” Presently, the ongoing scientific research points at bats as a primary source of SARS-CoV-2 while the intermediate host that transmitted the virus to humans is still being investigated.

The Chief Wildlife Warden adds, “Killing bats is against the law and will not solve any problem. Research suggests that Wildlife Trading and stressing wildlife population is at the root of the previous virus spillovers.”

THE KEYSTONE SPECIES

Imagine a world without bats! This would be a very different and much poorer planet. 

How many of you are aware there are more than 1,390 species of bats inhabiting the world? They are playing a significant ecological role which is important for the health of natural ecosystem as also humans. They act as pollinators by dispersing the seeds wherever possible.

Many bat species pollinate any number of valuable plants, thereby, ensuring the production of fruits. In rural areas, they support local economies as also sustain diverse animal populations. Fruit-eating bats in tropical countries disperse seeds that are critical to restoring ‘cleared’ or damaged rainforests.

PEST CONTROLLERS

Apart from this, thousands of bat species that exist – they not only prey on insects but also on some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Insect eating bats are voracious eaters of insects in cotton, rice, corn and potentially tea farms. So, bats benefit ecological and human health and provide intangible economic benefits. 

Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer. Expert say, “Guano is a major natural resource worldwide, and when mined responsibly with bats in mind, it can provide significant economic benefits for landowners and local communities.”

DO NOT DESTROY BATS

WE should wait for more research on Covid-19 outbreak to know the root cause of the problem and in the interim, none of the bats or its habitat should be harmed or destroyed. Further, trees or its branches where normally bats roost should not be cut. If somebody is found unnecessarily killing or harming bats or its habitat – action should be initiated by DCFs in their jurisdiction.

Bats are often considered “keystone species” since they are essential to some tropical and desert ecosystems. Without bats’ pollination and seed-dispersing services, local ecosystems could gradually collapse as plants will fail to provide food and cover for wildlife species near the base of the food chain. 

We should not forget in the above context  that already the BREEDING RATE IN BATS IS SLOW. Added to this, KILLING BATS or CUTTING TREES will seriously jeopardize the existing precarious biodiversity situation.

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