Moving Beyond a Fear of Bats

By Deepika Khatri

Image source: Waldemar Brandt via UnSplash

As the Covid-19 pandemic has continued to grow, bats are being viewed as a species to fear. On April 20, 2020 a leading newspaper carried this headline: ‘Bats are Bengaluru’s enemy no. 1 now’. The article stated that forest cell volunteers of the Bengaluru municipality were receiving an increasing number of phone calls from residents to cull bats and cut the fruit trees on which they reside because people were worried they would contract the corona virus from bats. 

I was reminded at once of Christopher Nolan’s 2005 film, Batman Begins which traces the tormented journey a young Bruce Wayne makes to adulthood. As a child, a tumble down a well to a bat roost, leaves him paralysed as he’s beset by a fear of bats. It’s what later causes him to ask his parents to leave an opera performance early and consequently, they fall victim to being shot by a street thug. This tremendous loss caused as a result of his fear is something he carries with him thereafter. As an adult, when Wayne returns to Gotham City, he assumes this primal symbol of his own fears—a bat. He becomes a hero without the extraordinary gifts that other superheroes are endowed with, choosing instead to hold closest to his skin the emblem of his greatest fear. 

Enemy No. 1: A misnomer

While the origin story of Covid-19 continues to unravel, there is largely consensus amongst scientists that the virus originated in bats and then passed through an intermediary animal to humans through a human-animal interaction. Research journal, Nature Medicine, affirms the zoonotic origin of the virus, adding that the causative virus ‘SARS-Cov-2 is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans.’ That is, there have been other outbreaks in the past such as SARS and MERS which are a family of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses. The origin of the 2002 SARS outbreak, for instance, was traced to horseshoe bats which jumped species to civets and then infected humans. 

In past outbreaks of zoonotic diseases as now, wildlife experts, scientists and conservationists have maintained that bats do not pose a direct human health hazard. This was reiterated in a statement released on April 24, 2020 by 64 South Asian scientists which stated, ‘It is highly unlikely for SARS-like viruses to jump directly from bats to humans. Also, there is no evidence of humans contracting coronavirus or any such viruses through the excreta of bats.’ 

Despite these reassurances, bats continue to be vilified. In fact, what is common to past outbreaks of infectious diseases, whether it is SARS, Ebola or Hendra, is the human reaction. Each occurrence has seen calls to destroy bat roosts by torching and smoking them out with the aim to cull them. It’s a response witnessed not only in India’s biggest metro cities, but in countries across the world. In Indonesia, for instance, hundreds of bats were put in cages and burnt in what authorities deemed were efforts to ‘curb the pandemic’. In San Francisco, US, people have been asking experts how to trap and kill bats, while in Peru, 200 bats were rescued and moved to a cave after people tried to attack a colony with torches. 

As the number of people affected by Covid-19 continues to rise, bats have been misleadingly and dangerously designated Enemy No. 1. Across geographies, the human response to this mammal has been marked by fear—fear of the threat they are imagined to pose. Consequently, human action has been driven by a need to separate, cut off from and kill what is perceived as the source of this fear. 

Choosing our response

As a species, humans have been demonstrating dominion over other species and the shared landscape inhabited, shaping it for a particular kind of shortsighted gain. Anything seen to encroach or challenge that has been viewed as being in conflict with this purpose. As human settlements continue to grow and push wildlife to the margins, there has been a rise in human-wildlife conflict. Markus Nils Peterson and his co-authors in a paper argue that the very term human-wildlife conflict is problematic because it ‘positions wildlife as conscious human antagonists. [It] dichotomizes humans and nature, framing wildlife as something that threatens human existence, rather than contributing to human welfare’. 

As a result, rather than viewing humans and wildlife as part of a continuum that share habitats in urban settings, agricultural land, wetlands and forests, an illusion has been created of silos for humans and animals. As human development activities continue to expand, wildlife species that we have a history of coexistence with, are now perceived as a threat. As naturalist Jana Goodall says, ‘We must stop talking about everything as it benefits us and start realizing that the reason for this pandemic now is because we have shown so little respect for the natural world, with destroying more and more forest and animal species being pushed together.’  

Scientists tracing the underlying cause of the present pandemic suggest that increased contact with wildlife and exploitation by humans is enabling the transmission of animal viruses to humans. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has found that human encroachment into wildlife habitats, human-modified landscape and activities such as hunting and wildlife trade have led to an increased rates of virus spillover. Covid-19 is believed to have originated in one such wet market in Wuhan in China. 

Yet, bats are currently one of the species against whom humans are now trying to wage a misguided war. Even though we have co-habited with them for decades, there is now a fear response to cull these mammals who are a crucial part of the ecosystem for pollination, eating insects, and whose droppings act as fertiliser. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed 24 bat species as critically endangered while another 104 are vulnerable to extinction. 

Now, more than ever before, we’re faced with the question of how we choose to respond to the multiple species we share the planet with. As lead author of the study, Christine Johnson, from the University of California, Davis’ One Health Institute, says, ‘When we start to return to normal life after this pandemic, we must find ways to ensure safe and sustainable co-existence with wildlife in our shared environment. We are the dominant species on the planet, and we’ve altered ecosystems for our own benefit for centuries, but ultimately, nature will determine how long we all co-exist.’  

Bertrand Russell, Nobel laureate and philosopher, once said: ‘Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.’ In many ways now, humanity is being presented with a choice of either deepening separations and destroying what is perceived as a threat, or seeing ourselves as part of a larger planetary story. What we choose will determine our well being and survival as a species. 

Deepika Khatri is one of the co-founders of The Curio-City Collective.