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Battling Bats

Zubin D’souza

I think that the world has had it with bats. There are horror stories that have been flooding the cyberspace and the print media.

The current Covid 19 outbreak has been linked to bats. The general consensus is that the outbreak of the virus took place in a wet market based out of Wuhan in China.

Immediately there were ghastly tales of bat soup and stock images of the flying mammals spreading all over the world.

The cynics and the sceptics have joined forces to create an atmosphere of fear that has been unprecedented.

Social media added to the frenzy and suddenly bats and wild creatures were being looked upon with suspicion.

To be fair, none of the creatures involved whether they are bats or pangolins actually felt happy being consumed by humans.

Under the current witch hunt, I fear that the frenzy would even hurt the launch of the latest Batman movie!

In fact I can already picture the DC and Marvel head honchos rescinding offers to anything that closely resembles the current poster bad boy of the night!

But there is some truth to the matter; this is not the first time that bats have been linked to a major food related epidemic.

Chiropterophily is the act of pollination of plants by bats. What many of us probably don’t realise is that about five hundred plant species like guavas, mangoes and bananas rely on bats to do their pollinating for them.

Of course bats are not really known for their philanthropy and the humans who were left to pay the cost had a tough time indeed.

Palm wine is known by many names in the nations that dot Africa and Asia. It has been enjoyed in the pan tropical belt uninterrupted for close to sixteen thousand years and is probably one of the oldest natural beverages that are still in circulation.

It is obtained by harvesters who climb the enormous trees and make deliberate cuts into the crown to extract the palm sap. The sap starts fermenting almost immediately and turns into wine within a couple of hours and a traditional vinegar by the next day.

The wine is not without its aficionados. It starts off as a sweet drink with an unmistakable fragrance and by the end of the day it manages to turn out hordes of alcohol imbibed zombies.

And the enjoyment is not restricted to humans alone. Primates have been caught in the process of stealing the sap and bats have been known to enjoy the occasional sip.

Unfortunately, the bats couldn’t really contain their glee when they discovered the secret stash and the saliva or other bodily fluids that dribbled into the drink caused deadly Nipah virus outbreaks.

That wasn’t the only time that bats decided that they could transmit their zoonotic viruses to humans.

When Ebola spread through Africa, there were initially several other culprits that were hunted down and shamed. Authorities believed that the illnesses were transmitted to humans via non human primates like baboons and apes which sometimes form a part of the diet.

Then the role of bats came to the fore. Once again the guardians of the night were vilified.

But it is not only the recent past that bats have come to haunt our food eating habits.

In 1994 was the first outbreak of the Hendra virus where victims died due to hemorrhagic fever, kidney and respiratory failure.

In 1998, Malaysia had an outbreak of Nipah virus which was blamed on pigs. While over a million pigs were culled, the real culprits remained the bats.

Then twenty years later, the Indian state of Kerala received a fresh outbreak. This time it was a double whammy; it was found in the palm wine as well as in pork.

Luckily the spread was contained in time.

You are probably wondering how these viruses jump to animals and then to humans. Regrettably sometimes bats drop down masticated fruit which to certain species of foraging animals is somewhat of a delicacy.

For bats to evolve to the position that they are in now; small bodies, long life spans and strong endurance means that their immune system is impeccably strong.

Sadly we aren’t that far evolved and we succumb. And we can’t get rid of bats totally because they are an integral part of our ecosystem.

This is definitely not going to be the last we hear of what bats have in store for us. All we can do is to avoid certain products and be safe.

For now it is bye-bye to pork and palm wine. Other red meats like goat and buffalo are also best avoided. Other fruits like mangoes, guavas and litchis have to be well washed to avoid inadvertently licking something that the bats have left behind.

These basic rules will keep us safe and avoid a bat-led pandemic.

More importantly, the studios will never consider blocking the production of the new Batman movie!

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