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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