Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste

May 29, 2020

By Merlin Tuttle and Danielle Cordani

Wrong approaches in defense of bats can be even worse than not defending them at all. Articles, such as the one published in the May 15 issue of Scientific American, “Bats are Not Our Enemies,” are meant to defend bats, but can unwittingly perpetuate needless fear and intolerance. As experience has shown, despite good intentions, nothing can threaten bats more than fear.

The article’s subheading, “The viruses they carry spill over into humans mostly when we encroach on their territory or drag them into ours—and bats do great good as well” does nothing to quell fear. Readers should be wary of praising articles that include misleading statements about disease or ones that promote separation from bats as a solution.

Without putting disease risks in perspective, simply stating the value of bats cannot counteract the belief that bats are dangerous sources of deadly diseases, capable of threatening one’s family. People will always prioritize their own well-being rather than protect animals they fear. A study, currently in press, surveyed people on their willingness to support bat conservation. Support improved significantly only when fear was eliminated.

Millions of wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats from Khao Chong Pran Cave in Thailand pass over thousands of tourists with whom local villagers do brisk business. Harvested guano sells for over $200,000 annually and the bats save local rice growers an estimated $300,000 per season. Despite decades of close contact, no disease outbreaks have occurred.

There is no documentation that Ebola, SARS, MERS, Hendra, or COVID-19 have ever been transmitted from bats to humans, though bats are often presented as the source of human infection. Such diseases are also mentioned as though they are widespread, without admitting that they (excluding COVID-19, of course) are rare or limited to specific geographic areas. For example, Americans have been warned that poop from a flying bat can give them Ebola, omitting mention that Ebola reservoirs are known only from Africa and haven’t been documented in bats even there!

Millions of tourists have safely observed spectacular bat emergences close-up in Austin, Texas for decades without harm. The bats consume up to 10 tons of insects nightly and attract millions of tourist dollars annually.

The study on which most media reports are based was clearly biased, claiming that bats harbor more viruses than other animals. It compared just 4 of the 26 orders of mammals and sampled nearly twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. Since new viruses can be found anywhere, a disproportionate search can be misleading. A far more thorough study recently concluded that bat species harbor no more viruses than other mammals or even birds, though it’s received very little media attention.

The recently promoted idea of restricting bats to protected areas is impractical and impossible to implement. As human populations expand, there is increasing need to share habitats. Even huge bat colonies can be safe neighbors, as demonstrated in cities like Austin, Texas. In fact, humans can benefit greatly. How can bats protect us from pests, pollinate crops, or generate tourist revenue if excluded from our farms and neighborhoods?

Limiting habitat destruction is critical to preserving biodiversity and ensuring the survival of many species. However, it’s imperative that we learn to live harmoniously with wildlife wherever possible. Bat survival increasingly demands that we not only protect their natural habitat but share ours as well.

For people who don’t attempt to handle or eat bats, the odds of contracting any disease from them are extremely remote. People have learned not to kick beehives or run into yards guarded by unfamiliar dogs; they can just as easily learn not to handle bats.

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Costa Rica’s Bat-Friendly Hotel

By Paula Tuttle
3/11/20

Merlin and I recently spent an especially productive week promoting bat conservation at the Harmony Hotel in northwestern Costa Rica. Merlin’s lecture, introducing the many values of Costa Rican bats, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience that included both hotel guests and community members.

Thanks to the owner’s passionate commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment, the hotel is a wildlife oasis in the midst of the small town of Nosara. Wherever possible, a lush profusion of native vegetation has been restored or introduced, serving as a magnet for animals, from howler monkeys, coatis and margay cats to large iguanas and an impressive variety of bats.

We quickly recorded more than a dozen bat species, belonging to five families, and introduced them to appreciative staff and guests. In fact, the proximity of multiple species posed the biggest challenge to use of a bat detector. The hotel may soon attract even more bats, as it intends to put up bat houses.

We were especially encouraged to learn of all the hotel’s progress toward environmental sustainability while maintaining top quality. The staff were outstanding. The food was healthy and delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two evenings spent introducing the owners’ family and friends to the diverse array of bats found in their own yard.

Merlin has prepared a program on Costa Rican bats for the hotel to share with guests and in local schools, and we look forward to further collaboration.   

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Thai Adventures Part 4: Khao Chong Pran

2/19/20

By Merlin Tuttle

For me, our trip highlight was the visit to the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Ratchaburi Province. Nearly 40 years ago Buddhist monks who owned the cave had asked my advice. Their monastery relied on bat guano fertilizer sales for support. But in 1981 production was plummeting. Of course, and the monks wanted to know why.

Merlin and Surapon reminiscing about their first visit to Khao Chong Pran Cave nearly 40 years earlier.

Before dawn the next morning, my then young field assistant and interpreter, Surapon Duangkhae, and I discovered poachers using large fish nets to capture bats at the cave entrance. They were selling them to local restaurants. We hired two of the poachers to help us document the extent of the problem, then advised the monks to hire a game warden to protect their bats.

Merlin answering game warden’s questions in 1989.
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Thai Adventures Part 3: Cave Bats

12/26/19

By Daniel Hargreaves

We arrived at sunset at the OurLand Nature Reserve in Kanchanaburi Province, our home for the next 5 days. We quickly set up a few mist nets and a harp trap and were rewarded with a brace of lesser false vampire bats (Megaderma spasma) and several cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea). Merlin took the opportunity to show the group how to train a bat. Unfortunately, the chosen bat was unusually difficult. However, just over an hour later it eagerly permitted Merlin to approach, enticing it to drink from a syringe filled with sugar water.

The next morning, we climbed 200 steps in search of roosting bats located in two caves above a monastery occupied by Buddhist shrines.

Group climbing the steps to the cave with Kate in the lead.
Group entering cave.
Daniel Hargreaves showing the first tiny bumblebee bat to our group.

Initially, we captured a long-winged tomb bat (Taphazous longimanus) but as the group was looking at that one, I netted two bumblebee bats (Craseonycteris thonglongyai). Both were females weighing around two grams. They were delicately held by group participants while I explained the species’ anatomy, ecology, and conservation status.

Mindy excited to be holding a famously tiny bumblebee bat.
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Bat Flash! COVID-19 Coronavirus Leads to More Premature Scapegoating of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
Updated 03/26/20

The source of human exposure to the COVID-19 virus, or as it was first called, Wuhan virus, according to the March 12th edition of The Conversation, has yet to be identified. However, in a rush to judgment, far too many public health officials and media outlets are focusing almost entirely on bats. This has been seen in multiple news sources, from CNN to Vice. Such speculation can be counterproductive, especially when acted on as fact.

Bats, despite their essential ecological and economic roles, rank among our planet’s most rapidly declining and endangered animals1. They have few defenders and are often mistakenly viewed as dangerous. People who fear bats are less tolerant and frequently kill them 2.

Fear is needlessly created when virologists emphasize potentially distant evolutionary relationships that shed little light on where and how a virus is actually transmitted to humans. Bats are currently believed to harbor more kinds of viruses than other mammals. But even if true, there is no credible documentation of higher risk of transmission3. Most viruses are innocuous or even beneficial 3,4.

Bats, like any living organism, are capable of harboring scary viruses, yet transmission is rare, typically only to humans who carelessly handle a bat that bites in self-defense, followed by failure to seek medical attention. Nipa virus, in India and Bangladesh, is acquired by drinking unpasteurized palm juice, eating unwashed fruit, or associating with sick pigs5.

For more than a decade, virologists have used increasingly sophisticated technology to disproportionately search for new viruses in colonial bats6. New viruses can be found by looking no farther than our own human bodies, and they’re all related at some level4! We’re 96 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees7.

Scientists at Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute examined a key surface protein on the COVID-19 virus and found it just 79 percent genetically similar to SARS, noting that these viruses “are like comparing a dog and a cat.” 8 This flies in the face of widespread claims of similarity.

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Thai Adventures Part 2: Flying Foxes

1/21/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Several hours after leaving the painted bat village, we arrived at the Wat Chantaram, Buddhist temple, in Ang Thong province. The monks protect Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in the courtyard. We explained the ecology and diet of the species and how the group should approach the colony to minimize disturbance. Slowly approached, most of the bats remained calm allowing us to watch them grooming as they prepared to depart for the evening. The bats steadily increased their activity and their chattering became louder as they started to fly out in all directions, leaving the temple grounds in search of fruiting or flowering trees. As the bats were leaving, we could hear the monks chanting inside the temple providing a magical backdrop to the evening.

Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in Jantraram Temple courtyard, protected by monks in Thailand.

The following morning, we headed to Bang Pahan village in search of a second Lyle’s flying fox camp (a colony roosting site). The bats had set up camp alongside the river and after several attempts we discovered a spot where we could get closer.

Our focus was on photographing these roughly four-foot wingspan bats as they flew among roost trees. These weren’t as well protected, and something had made them nervous. They had a right to be, as some had wing membranes were perforated with holes from apparent shotgun pellets. Our group looked in awe as hundreds of these flying giants took to the sky, moving farther along the river.

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Thai Adventures Part 1: Painted Bats

1/24/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Following a 6-hour road journey from Bangkok we arrived at our first destination, the painted bat village. With only two hours left before sunset, we split into two teams. One assisted Merlin with setting up the flight studio. The other went to find a painted bat to photograph in the studio that evening. Team two headed out in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors. They quickly spit into small groups furiously searching the dried leaves of banana plants for bats. 

Riding in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors to find painted bats.

It wasn’t long before we found a single male painted bat (Kerivoula picta) hanging in a dried leaf about a meter from the ground. The bat had been banded for research, so although a good candidate, we didn’t disturb him and continued our search for more. Less than 200 meters away we found another male this time without a band. We quickly checked his weight at 4.6 grams (less than the weight of a U.S. nickel) and decided he was a perfect candidate for flight cage training.

This one was carefully placed in a soft bag, and to ensure picture and set authenticity we took the bat and the leaf he was roosting in back to the village. (There was no shortage of such leaves.) Leanne Townsend balanced precariously on the back of a moped, holding the bat and set material, as it sped to the village in order to setup for the night’s photography. As our Thai hosts prepared a banquet for their guests, Merlin got to work on the set, helped by an enthusiastic group of members fascinated to watch the master at work. As soon as the set was ready, we fed and watered the little star and released him into the studio. The group looked on as his shallow wing beats resembled that of a butterfly. He investigated every corner of the studio until he was sure there was no easy escape, then entered his now relocated roost.

Photo: Daniel Hargreaves
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Bat Flash! Respond to Nipah Virus Warnings

By Merlin Tuttle
12/19/19

A December 8 Reuters press release, titled “Health experts warn of emerging threat of Nipah virus,” reported on a two-day Nipah conference in Singapore; picked up by CNA Asia and making headlines across much of Asia. On December 13, CNA World further reported that some experts believe Nipah to be a pandemic threat.

 

Both articles report flying foxes to be the carriers of this “deadly disease,” failing to mention its rarity or ease of prevention and speculating it to be a high-risk source of disease outbreaks over broad areas despite an absence of  historic documentation. There was no mention of the vital importance of flying foxes as key pollinators / seed dispersers or the necessity and ease of learning to live safely with them. Such exaggerated warnings threaten bats everywhere, but none more than flying foxes that are already in alarming decline.

 

Claims that such rare viruses are poised to become the next pandemic are no more than long-shot guesses. Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly, and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance and control, not prediction.  (more…)

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