COVID-19 and much-maligned bats

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Kathmandu

This isn’t the first time that bats have been blamed for a human coronavirus. They still get the primary blame for MERS, SARS and Ebola,” opines Pushpa Raj Acharya, an expert on bats and Scientific Officer at Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.

The constant scapegoating of bats in the face of global outbreak of diseases has often resulted in unnecessary scaremongering, stoking fear and hatred of bats — an already maligned animal group that continues to suffer from an undeserved negative public image.

Most communities across the globe have a negative attitude towards bats and perceive them as a symbol of bad omen and vampires. But bat lovers say the world needs to see them for what they truly are — extraordinary creatures of Mother Nature.

Authorities in Surakarta, Indonesia culled hundreds of bats found at a local animal market in March in what they called a bid to curb the pandemic.

The population of fruit bats in Malaysia and India is on a rapid decline.

In a statement released on April 24, 64 chiropterologists, including Acharya, from six South Asian nations namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, debunked myths on COVID-19 and bats stating that bats do not spread the novel coronavirus.

“None of the South Asian bats are proven to be natural carriers of SARS-CoV-2,” says Sanjeev Baniya, bat researcher at Nepal Bat Research and Conservation Union (NeBRCU), Pokhara, and one of the signatories.

The Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal (CMDN) had carried out a sample test of bats in Nepal during April to May of 2019, especially of Makawanpur and Chitwan region, collecting swabs and urines from various bats and extracting blood from a vein on their wings. Bat coronaviruses (BtCoV) was found in fruit bats. “However, bats pose no known health risk,” adds Baniya. “The viruses found in the study are different from SARS-CoV-2 and cannot cause COVID-19.”


Not enough study of bats in Nepal

As per NeBRCU, there are around 55 species of bats in Nepal, all of which remain unprotected.

In Nepal, literature and research on bats is negligible, however, recent research suggests their population has been increasingly declining since 2006.

At least 1,300 bats were recorded in 2006. In the previous known count of 2016, the number had dropped to less than 700.

According to local experts and researchers, their prime habitats are being destroyed due to rapid urbanisation, while trees are being felled for road expansion and construction of buildings. Likewise, cave tourism is one of the emerging threats to cave bats.

Many caves in the country are being promoted for touristic purpose disturbing bat roosting, as per Acharya.


Perception in Nepali culture

Bats have played a considerable yet somewhat lesser-known role in Nepali culture and lifestyle.

It is said people influenced by traditional medicinal practice believe bat meat cures diseases like asthma, arthritis, tuberculosis, alimentary and renal diseases.

“Dhami, Jhankri and Amchis were also found using dry flesh of bat for their healing technique.

The Newars of Kathmandu Valley used to kill bats to make bat oil that was used as medicine or as eardrops to expel ear bugs as a topical baldness cure, and as an anti-paralytic medicine,” informs Acharya.

However, bats have played a more pronounced role among the marginalised Chepang community.

The Chepangs and their relationship to chiuri, butter tree and bats (chamera) is a beautiful example of the correlation between humans and nature.

The sweet pulp of chiuri is consumed and the seeds are used for extraction of vegetable butter called ‘Chiuri ghee or Phulwaran butter’.

The tree also has a great cultural importance among the Chepang community, as chiuri saplings are given to daughters during marriage.

Bats are important for pollinating and dispersing of chiuri seeds. However, in recent years, as per a field study conducted in 2015 by Rufford Small Grant Foundation in the Chepang community of Makwanpur, the number of chiuri has greatly declined mainly because of excessive hunting of bats. During the flowering season, usually between October to November, bats visit these trees for flowering nectar, but the Chepangs with their mist nets trap a lot of them, using them as bush meat for consumption. As a result, bat number has drastically decreased resulting in a disruption of the ecosystem.

In the last four years, bat conservationist groups have mostly been involved in awareness programmes dissuading Chepangs from eating bat meat.

Consumption of bats among Chepangs has been decreasing, thanks to active awareness programmes but as Baniya points out, there still are a few communities consuming bats.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on May 7, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.


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