Covid: Why bats are not to blame, say scientists
Bats have been on earth for more than 50 million years
From time to time, Dr. Mathieu Bourgarel asked the village elders for permission to visit the sacred caves and brought a gift to soothe the spirits.
With a mask, overalls and three layers of gloves, he descends into the darkness, climbs down the rope ladders and squeezes through the narrow cave chambers.
The tell-tale smell of bats is everywhere, their excrement settling in layers on the ground as if they were wading through fresh snow.
Occasionally a bat is startled out of sleep, wings fly by while it flies.
The people of this part of Zimbabwe call bats "winged dragons", "flying rats" or simply "evil".
As everywhere in the world, the flying mammals are much misunderstood. To this wildlife ecologist, they are beautiful and incredible creatures. "They are fascinating," he says. "People are afraid of something they don't know."
Dr. Bourgarel is a virus hunter from the French research institute Cirad. Working with colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe, he goes into the bat caves to collect samples and droppings from bats.
Back in the laboratory, the scientists extract and sequence the genetic material from bat viruses. They have already discovered various coronaviruses, including one from the same family as Sars and Covid-19.
The research is part of a global effort to study the diversity and genetic makeup of the viruses that bats carry and provides the means to respond quickly if humans become sick.
"The local population frequently visits these bats' habitats to collect guano as fertilizer for their plants. Therefore, it is important to know the pathogens the bats transmit as they can be transmitted to humans," says Dr. Elizabeth Gori of the University of Zimbabwe.
Bat experts have launched a campaign, "Don't Blame Bats", to dispel unfounded fears and myths about bats that threaten conservation. They say bats are among the most misunderstood and undervalued animals on the planet.
Long the target of scorn, persecution, and cultural prejudice, they have been held responsible for a variety of evils that people have visited. And fears and myths about bats only intensified in the time of Covid.
Facts about bats
Bats are the only mammal that can really fly
Insectivorous bats can save US farmers $ 3.7 billion each year by reducing crop damage
Over 500 plant species rely on bats for pollination
Bats face unprecedented threats from habitat destruction, climate change, hunting and other pressures
Source: Bat Conservation International
The exact origin of the virus that wreaked such havoc around the world is not known. However, the vast majority of scientists agree that it passed from some species, most likely a bat, to humans. That's not to say that bats are to blame; It is our increasing interference with these ferocious creatures that is the root of the problem.
Most emerging disease outbreaks can be related to the destruction of nature by humans. When forests or meadows are cleared to graze cattle, grow soy, or build roads and settlements, wild animals are brought closer and closer to people and cattle, giving viruses the ability to jump ship.
"There is no denying that bats, like many other animal groups, pose a real risk as hosts of potentially dangerous diseases," says Ricardo Rocha of the University of Porto, Portugal.
However, he points out that when controlling the number of bat species (a whopping 1,400 or more) the number of viruses infecting humans is similar to that of other mammalian groups like birds, pets, and rodents.
Since 2000, Borneo has lost 20,000 square miles of forest
Scientists estimate that three in four new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. A warning of the dangers came in 2002 when the mysterious Sars disease emerged in China, killing nearly 800 people around the world.
In 2017, the researchers identified a colony of horseshoe bats that lived in remote caves in Yunnan Province and that contained genetic parts of the human Sars virus. They then warned that a similar disease could recur, and they were right.
But instead of blaming one way or another, we need to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world, says Dr. Rocha. He points out that bats are vital to healthy ecosystems and human wellbeing.
Bats suppress insects that swarm over crops. Plants in the tropics rely on them for pollination, including cocoa, vanilla, and durians. And they disperse the seeds of trees found in rainforests and help fight climate change.
Bats emerge from a limestone cave in Mexico
It would be a "terrible result" if bats were demonized, since the spread of disease from animals to humans is much more about humans invading their domain than the other way around, says Dr. David Robertson from the University of Glasgow. The history of Covid-19 has likely been circulating in bats for decades, with the ability to infect other animal species as well.
There have been isolated reports of Covid-related setbacks against bats, including actual or intentional kills in Peru, India, Australia, China and Indonesia.
Scientists warn that some misguided actions could have serious consequences for endangered bat species and could even increase the risk of disease overflow.
Some tropical fruit bats carry seeds within them and carry them far and wide
"A key concern is that many bat species are critically endangered, so even small incidents of misdirected violence can cause irreversible damage and catastrophic effects on ecosystems that humans rely on," said Douglas MacFarlane of the University of Cambridge.
Bats have lived next to humans for the benefit of each other for centuries. In the university city of Coimbra, Portugal, bats have lived in an 18th-century library for more than 300 years and eat insects that could otherwise destroy manuscripts. Visit us at dusk and you might see them scurry out of the library windows and tumble down the steep cobblestone streets.
Ricardo Rocha says we need to remember that bats are an integral part of the complex natural webs that keep ecosystems healthy. "If there's one big takeaway message from this unfortunate moment in history, it's that nature makes sick, makes us sick," he says.
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