News | Covid-19
As qualified and armchair scientists continue to analyse the source of SARS-CoV 2, one species besides humans are taking a beating.
Since it emerged that the source of the novel coronavirus could be traced to a wet market in Wuhan, and that bats could have been hosts of Covid-19, people have blamed these winged mammals for causing the virus.
This assumption is not completely true though.
Although bats do host many strains of coronaviruses, and bats were sold in the wet market in question, bats can not be blamed for the spread of Covid-19. That assumption rests squarely on the shoulders of human beings.
Experts have yet to confirm bats as the original source for the novel coronavirus.
In the 2002 Severe Upper Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, and 2012’s Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic, animal to human transmissions were suspected and later confirmed, and bats were mentioned as being possible hosts responsible for these diseases as well.
During the SARS epidemic, live markets were earmarked across Asia for housing countless animals, including seafood, snakes, birds, and bats. Civets were later identified as SARS hosts, and MERS identified bats and camels as possible virus origins.
Poring over journals does not seem to make a good case for bats, but an article analysing the return of the coronavirus, published in January, explains that “human serology data shows recognition of bat CoV proteins and indicates that low-level zoonotic transmission of SARS-like bat coronaviruses occurs outside of recognised outbreaks”.
In other words, if coronavirus pandemics aren’t forcing people into lockdown around the world, the likelihood of a virus like Covid-19 being spread from bats to humans is low.
Or, as Johannesburg Wildlife Vet director and rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright explains it: “If you’re not eating bats and bushmeat, you’ll be fine.”
She points to the fact that humans and bats have coexisted in relative harmony “for millennia”, but that wet markets have proved to be potential breeding grounds for diseases that affect humans while sacrificing the welfare and hygiene of the animals sold.
“It’s the condition they’re kept in, their welfare and hygiene levels. It’s not bats that are the problem, people are. They are a far more beneficial part of our lives than an adverse part.”
Wet markets are not unique to China; many market set-ups around the world sell fresh fish and meat. What makes China’s wet markets different is the sheer amount of animals and wildlife customers can choose from, which creates a much broader scope for viruses to jump from one animal to another, and eventually find their way to humans.
This coupled with limited space while animals are slaughtered and sold is a recipe for disaster. Bats are simply part of the mess, and their role in the Covid-19 pandemic is most likely one of a chain of events, involving an intermediate animal.
NGO BirdLife International published scientific facts based on information provided by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EuroBats), and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA).
These organisations emphasised that bats do not spread Covid-19, explaining that despite the almost 1,500 bat species living around the world, usually in the gardens or roofs of unsuspecting residents, in parks or infrastructure, a pandemic of this scale and severity is rare.
If bats were a threat to human beings, we would have had a lot more novel coronaviruses to battle. In their natural habitat, they pose no danger to humans.
They are, in fact, an asset. Bats need a significant amount of insects to survive, which means we have them to thank for eating mosquitos – many of those malaria-carrying ones.
Bats also eat a host of insects that threaten farmers’ crops, and are responsible for pollination, especially in agriculture, Wright explained.
Jonathan Haw, director of EcoSolutions, said it is estimated that bats’ bug appetite provides “essential ecosystem services” to the agricultural industry in the US, to the tune of $3.7 billion.
EcoSolutions specialises in humanely removing bats from precarious scenarios, builds bat houses, and have studied bat behaviour to figure out how artificial roost sites can be occupied by bats.
“Ethical exclusion and the provision of compensatory roost sites is always the best way forward,” Haw explained, adding that although bats do not pose more danger to humans than any other wildlife species, an accumulation of guano as a result of roosting can compromise human health.
This is especially when bats roost in roofs or ceilings, and these areas are not cleaned. When this occurs, these environments can harbour Histoplasma capsulatum, a fungus pathogen responsible for histoplasmis – a rarely fatal disease which can cause complications in AIDS patients.
But the sentiment of humans being more dangerous to most species on Earth still holds true – especially because their main threat is habitat loss.
Out of the three zoonotic viruses to hit humankind this century, two have been blamed on bats. This, along with a rather unconventional appearance, puts people off – sometimes to the point where bats are killed as people try to curb the spread of Covid-19.
But there is much to love about this not-so-furry flying animal.
Bats are the only animals able to use echolocation on land, and Haw said the way bats communicate “is probably the root of our understanding of sonar and all of the applications we now enjoy”.
Without bats, we also may not have Baobab trees, as fruit bats are thought to be the only pollinators, Haw added.
Bats may be small, but they live their lives much like larger mammals.
This is because they have slow reproduction rates, averaging one pup a year, and can live for up to 20 years.
They also have to eat their weight in insects in order to exert enough energy to fly, and use their finger-tipped wings as blankets and to cool themselves down.
When bats do fly, they do so by dropping from a height, and can fly at the tender age of three weeks.
Bats are not the reason for the pandemic. But conservationists are concerned, and frustrated people are looking for something to blame.
CMS said taking it out on bats would not stop the novel coronavirus, and could cause irreparable damage to an already threatened animal, and cause irreparable damage to ecosystems.
CMS, like many organisations, call for the world to look after bats better than before the pandemic, pointing to their essential role in many ecosystems.
The Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital treats a large number of bats, usually found in people’s ceilings.
Wright explains that the best way to raise awareness about how important bats are is through education. She encourages people to phone her should they have bats on their property, or simply to know more about them. Wright is keen to refer people to bat specialists, to end the stigma associated with them.
She added that there are humane ways to remove bats that are becoming a nuisance on properties, and that people should consult with her or specialists before trying to remove them, and probably harm them in the process.
“Collectively, bats are at risk of people who manage them incorrectly. When a large number of bats roost in ceiling spaces, they can be noisy. Faeces and urine soaks in ceiling boards, which becomes smelly. But there are humane ways of dealing with it.”
Cue EcoSolutions, which has studied the way bats and their behaviour to understand their requirement for artificial housing.
Bats will move between roost sites based on a number of factors, which is why there are at least two roost sites relatively close together.
These sites serve as maternity sites, resting sites, and even bachelor pads, and come in three different designs: the nurse box, the six-chamber box and the Old George box.
Haw said that farmers now use bats and bat houses to tackle pests in a sustainable way. EcoSolutions’ bat house projects throughout macadamia orchards, sugar cane plantations and citrus farms, and is now commonplace and continues to gain traction, he explained.
“However, in many residential environments, bats continue to be feared and vilified. Humans in their recent history have been generally diurnal and have an inherent fear of any species that goes bump in the night. We can’t see them very well, it is our natural inclination to fear them.”
EcoSolutions found that providing bats with roosting site options means humans can benefit from their ecosystem services without them negatively impacting our lifestyles.
“As our appreciation for this wonderful mammal grows, we will see them as allies and work to accommodate them and not discourage them,” Haw enthused.
Once the general population accepts that bats play an integral role in ecosystems – significantly more so than human beings – perhaps they will finally get the respect they deserve, and hopefully, coexist harmoniously with people once more.
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