Are bats to blame? Facts and thoughts from TBA alumni about COVID 19

Since the onset of the pandemic – whose effects have torn through every sector of society, the unanswered question remains, where did the coronavirus originate from? It most certainly is a wildlife origin but the precise source continues to elude scientists.

All the same, there have been numerous associations drawn between bats, pangolins and the SARS-CoV-2; the virus responsible for causing COVID 19. This virus is one of thousands of coronaviruses found in wildlife – including bats, with the vast majority of these viruses posing no threat to humans. Bats have been purported to be the source with pangolins serving as an intermediate host. Pangolins’ supposed role, however, may not be too surprising as they are the most hunted and trafficked mammals globally.

Yellow Winged Bat (Lavia frons) (photo © Jens Rydell)

As much as this remains a theory, (without definitive evidence so far that SARS-CoV-2 passed directly from bats to humans), the linking of bats with Covid 19 has reinforced the damaging narratives and cognitive biases around bats that in many cases are a combination of myth, mysteries and misunderstandings; typically influenced by deep rooted cultural beliefs. For animals that nature designed to survive in the dark, it is time they are brought to light.

“It is most certain that the disproportionate sampling of bats (Mollentze & Streicker, 2020) has led to the notion that they carry more viruses,” says Dr. Paul Webala, a wildlife biologist and senior lecturer at Maasai Mara University, Kenya. “Bats do a lot of good in nature. They provide services that we cannot exist without and their elimination from our environment would certainly lead to serious ecosystem disruptions and extinctions of bat-dependent species,” he adds emphatically.

Bats are remarkable native creatures of key ecological and economic importance. What is urgently required is more matter-of-fact style reporting around the risks of bat-borne diseases to avoid vilification and persecution of these highly under-appreciated mammals. With 1,400 recorded species they are one of the most diverse mammals, second only to rodents. This means that one in every four mammals are bats.

Equally remarkable, bats occupy various trophic levels and depend on numerous food sources; some in highly specialized ways.  Their food sources range from insects, flowers, pollen, birds, fish, small mammals including other bats and blood (vampire species).

Beyond the inherent value each species has in nature, different groups of bats provide valuable ecosystem services. Insectivorous bats for instance, are voracious predators of insects and naturally control many agricultural and forestry pests, and bugs like mosquitoes that themselves spread disease.

Frugivorous bats, on the other hand provide long-distance pollination and seed-dispersal services, helping maintain the integrity of increasingly fragmented natural habitats in the tropics and sub-tropical regions.  Collectively, these services contribute immensely to the health and productivity as well as reducing the management costs of ecosystems and agricultural landscapes.

Webala’s research team setting up a triple high net system at Arabuko-Sokoke forest, Kenya. Also in the picture is Beryl Makori, a TBA alumni as well. (photo © Jens Rydell)

Bats offer opportunities for medical intervention and research. Saliva from vampire bats has the potential to treat a range of conditions from blood pressure, heart failure, kidney diseases and burns. Several bat species are also resistant to a multitude of ailments, from cancers to infectious fevers that prove devastating to other species, including humans.

In addition, bats might be able to offer insights to one of the causes greatly pursued by humans, longevity. In mammals, body mass and longevity are correlated. The smaller the animal, the shorter the life span – except in bats.

Of all mammals, only 19 species (in proportion to their body size) are longer lived than humans, 18 of these are bats. Meaning these misunderstood flying mammals just might have the key to better understand aging mechanisms, and provide ways to improve the quality of life for elderly people. Such cases support the argument why nature needs to be broadly protected; we neither know nor can we predict where in nature the next revolutionary treatment or discovery will be obtained.

African Trident Bat (Triaenus afer) in limestone cave (photo © Jens Rydell)

While bats are being maligned, what role have we played in the pandemic? Scientists have long warned that the rate at which new and infectious diseases are emerging is accelerating. With rising human populations steadily intruding on wildlife territories, with unprecedented changes in land use, with wildlife, livestock and their products shipped across countries and around the globe coupled with sharp growths in both domestic and international travel, pandemics of novel diseases are a mathematical near certainty. In fact, scientists have gone a step further and claimed that if the trend persists, this may not be the only pandemic in our lifetime.

Wildlife trafficking and trade especially through live markets is considered a key source of the SARS-COV-2 virus. Here we have numerous species being sold in an open environment; usually including species that would naturally not interact in the wild. This, together with daily human contact with the animals, presents optimum conditions for multiplication and perpetration of various pathogens as well as for zoonotic transfers.

Statistically speaking, daily spill over events happen naturally. However, most do not translate to active infections. Unfortunately, contemporary human behavior is distorting the natural balance. “By encroaching into wild spaces and indulging in behaviors that bring us into close contact with wildlife, humans put themselves in harm’s way. It is emerging that wildlife associated zoonotic spillover events are largely rooted in human activities,” says Dr. Paul Webala.

It is without a doubt that this global crisis has taught us that we are not fully prepared to tackle the health epidemics we face at this time or those we will potentially face in future. David Kwarteng, Executive Director Institute of Nature and Environmental Conservation & Co-founder Herp Conservation Ghana, advises that in order to ensure that the present COVID-19 crisis is contained and future happenings prevented, society must transition to a more just and equitable lifestyle where humans co-exist harmoniously with nature.

With all these facts at hand, where does this then leave us? In many cases the facts and issues surrounding a severe situation needs to be communicated very clearly. The pandemic has brought to light the fact that the public does value expert opinion and wants it from researchers unfiltered, untainted and appropriately used even in political decisions. It is time scientists came out to ensure that scientific information is not only factual but also devoid of false interpretations.

Scientists are not necessarily the best communicators outside of technical writing whose target is mainly their peers. However, it is clear today that they must make a conscious effort to provide communication for public consumption who must include politicians. Their biggest challenge is how to communicate complex issues, uncertainty and risk like the pandemic. “Accurate framing when communicating about bats and other species that are of public importance should and must be at the back of every scientist’s mind,” says Iroro Tanshi, a doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University, USA and a lecturer at the University of Benin.

Having scientists out of the communication loop is catastrophic to say the least. This means that scientists have to actively engage and collaborate with journalists and media houses to share their knowledge, work and expertise with the public. Researchers should also take advantage of new age digital media tools to reach a wider audience,

The global pandemic has also clearly highlighted the value of research, and the need for reliable research infrastructure and funding for investigative studies. Even more important, is the building of capacity among researchers across the globe. Studies being done on the pandemic requires collaboration among researchers across varying fields from wildlife ecologists, geneticists, virologists, epidemiologists, public health experts among others. The stakes have never been higher and ultimately, high quality research will be the basis upon which COVID 19 control will stem from.

It is for such reasons that organizations like Tropical Biology Association exist; to build capacity and train researchers, students and aspiring practitioners to ensure they have the technical skills to not only address the current scientific challenges but also have the mental acuity to carry out research that will predict and prevent any future calamities.

By Nyawira Gitaka (@nyawiragitaka)

Contributors (Tropical Biology Association Alumni)

Dr Paul Webala: Wildlife Ecologist, Senior Lecturer, Maasai Mara University
1998 TBA Course, Tanzania.

Paul Webala is a National Geographic Explorer, and a senior lecturer of wildlife biology at Maasai Mara University (MMARAU), Kenya. He has held key positions at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Karatina University (Kenya), and is former Head of Forestry and Wildlife Management Department and Director for Research at MMARAU. Paul is a regional expert on small mammals especially bats, with extensive research experience; Paul uses bats to understand and interrogate processes that drive rarity and abundance of mammals in nature, and in human-dominated environments. While primarily a community ecologist, his research spans several subfields of biology: animal behavior, ecology and systematic/taxonomy, and has several publications to his name. Paul is a member of the Bat Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. He is also a research associate with the NMK, KWS and the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA, and a member of the Science Advisory Committee of Bat Conservation International. He is the current Chair of the nascent Bat Conservation Africa, a network of African biologists, naturalists, conservationists, bat enthusiasts that seeks to promote collaboration and coordination on trans-boundary bats-related issues.

Dr Iroro Tanshi: Doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University, USA Lecturer at the University of Benin, Nigeria
2010 TBA Course, Uganda.

Iroro Tanshi is a Future For Nature (FFN) Awardee, a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University, co-Founder of Small Mammal Conservation Organization, Lecturer at the University of Benin, and a Research Fellow of the Harrison Institute. She co-founded the Bat Conservation Africa network, and was its first co-Chair. Iroro is also a member of the IUCN Bat Specialist Group. Her work spans ecology and conservation of small mammals, and currently focused on bats. Iroro aims to understand the drivers and mechanisms of co-existence in hype-diverse tropical bat assemblages, by harnessing techniques in community ecology and biogeography. Her Hipposideros curtus – Nigeria’s only endangered bat species – conservation project, won her the FFN award. Iroro is very passionate about raising and strengthening local capacity, and supporting research infrastructure in Nigeria and across West Africa.

Mr David Kwarteng: Executive Director, Institute of Nature and Environmental Conservation & Co-founder Herp Conservation Ghana
2011 TBA Course, Tanzania.

David is the Executive Director of the Institute of Nature and Environmental Conservation, Ghana and co-founder of Herp Conservation Ghana. David holds a MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge, and a MSc in Sustainable Environmental Management from the University of Greenwich, UK. He is a passionate conservationist with many years at the forefront of biodiversity conservation in Ghana, and has worked with various stakeholders to conserve critically imperiled species and their habitats. His current interest lies in understanding the drivers and rationalization for conservation crimes in Ghana. He is also exploring the use of culture and traditions in conserving critically imperiled species including pangolins. He is a commonwealth scholar and recipient of several conservation awards.

Anthony Kuria: Head of African office of the Tropical Biology Association, Kenya
1996 TBA Course, Uganda.

Kuria heads the African Office of the Tropical Biology Association, where he leads in developing training programmes for African scientists and conservation practitioners. He has a Masters’ degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Kuria strongly believes in knowledge management, and the mentoring of young people, and has been in instrumental in supporting and strengthening careers of TBA alumni, thus preparing them to have an impact on the ground.