COVID-19: Why It’s Important to Stop Vilifying Bats
Right now, the modern world is facing scary and unprecedented times. Our societal and economic infrastructures have been shaken to their foundation by a global pandemic. People have lost their jobs, their loved ones, and their sense of normalcy. And in some countries, like the US, the government has been quite the opposite of the beacon of hope and leadership people have desperately needed to count on in these uncertain times. People are scared and looking for something or someone to blame — some blame China, heinously calling it the “China Virus.” Others are blaming 5G, believing in a conspiracy theory that the 5G cell towers are causing the virus and other cancerous diseases. But the biggest and most devastating victim of this panic-induced blame game certainly goes to these commonly misunderstood, innocent, and environmentally vital creatures: bats.
What Caused COVID-19?
Let’s break down exactly what COVID-19 is and how it originated. Coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is a zoonotic, which is a disease that’s transmitted from animals to humans. In humans, it is a respiratory virus that is characterized by cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches, sore throat, unexplained loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, headache, and death.
In the initial panic, there was a flurry of stories and accusations as to how this disease was first borne. There was a viral video of a woman, Wang Mengyun, eating a bat with chopsticks in what looked like a bowl of soup — creating the craze that the primary epicenter of this disease was this “bat soup.” This claim has since been debunked. The woman in the video was not only not in Wuhan, but the video was filmed in 2016.
There were also allegations that it was a snake that caused the virus. Snakes commonly hunt bats, and a snake sold at a wet market in Wuhan was believed to have consumed an infected bat prior to being killed and eaten by a human. The blame was then shifted to pangolins, who are also a carrier of the virus. Same story: bought or consumed at a disease-ridden wet market.
Case in point — we do not know for certain what animal caused the virus. Although the finger-pointing and accusations continue, one thing is without a shadow of a doubt — the virus came from the egregious, unsanitary, and unregulated conditions of live animal wet-markets. And unfortunately, bats have continued to remain the biggest scapegoat of them all.
How Bats Have Suffered
Because of how much panic and misinformation there is being circulated throughout the media, bats have remained public enemy number one. The species has been vilified in the media and on the internet, being denounced as disease-ridden nuisances, pests that must be exterminated.
Many species of bats carry different strains of coronavirus, but the bats that have been found to be specific carriers of COVID-19 are the Chinese Horseshoe Bats. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people from all over the globe from fearing their local nocturnal mammals.
In Peru, citizens who feared that bats were spreading the virus have been seen burning hundreds of them alive in the streets. Luckily, the Peruvian government was able to intervene and save around 200 of the innocent animals; but the fear and panic still remain.
Unfounded fear has historically never boded well for any animal species. Fear, panic, and ignorance envoke poaching, extermination, and massive ecosystemic destruction. We’ve seen it too many times; with bees, with sharks, with wild cats — the fear of being stung or bitten or mauled prompts people to destroy these animals and the ecosystems in which they live, creating disastrous and far-reaching environmental impacts. If the panic continues to spread with bats as the martyr, the species could be devastated.
How Can We Protect Bats?
The biggest tool of conservation is education — one of the best things we can do to save bats is to learn about them and teach others about them.
Bats are not the blood-sucking beasts that they have been portrayed to be since the inauguration of vampire movies. While there is a species called the Vampire Bat, they don’t bite your neck and suck your blood. At least not human blood, anyway. They live off the blood of warm mammals, such as cows, pigs, and horses. Attacks on humans are extremely rare and have almost never been fatal. (The only instances of death were because of rabies, a disease that is not exclusive to bats.)
Bats are incredibly important to the environment. Like bees and butterflies, they are vital pollinators, helping keep alive a diverse variety of plants and flowers. They also play an important role in controlling the bug population — especially mosquitos. Even their guano (excrement) is a nourishing and valuable fertilizer.
Bats have not only been a target in the media, but they are victims of extreme habitat loss. If we want to protect these incredibly important and misunderstood animals, we must learn to live with them. Because they are being displaced by human activity, they are coming closer and closer to the places that we live. If you find yourself with some new nocturnal guests around your yard, let them stay. They won’t hurt you. In fact, you’ll probably be able to enjoy being outside more with fewer mosquitos around.
If you have a colony of bats that you feel need to be removed, please do not try to deal with them yourself. Call your local Fish and Wildlife Service and they will safely and humanely relocate the bats to a protected area.
To learn more about what you can do to help protect bats, please visit any of these conservation websites:
Bat Conservation International Bat Conservation and Management Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation World Wildlife Fund