Endangered bats live on a wing and a prayer
As the only mammals that can fly, bats evoke a range of reactions in people. Western cultures typically associate them with witchcraft, malevolent forces and blood-sucking vampires, but there’s more to these creatures than meets the eye.
Bats come in all shapes and sizes and can be far cuddlier than horror stories will have you believe. The US Department of the Interior estimates that there are over 1,400 species of bats worldwide, inhabiting virtually each corner of the world, except the arid deserts and frozen polar regions.
I blame us; the bats are perfectly fine if they’re left alone, where they belong. But the trouble is we’ve invaded their habitat, we’re destroying the forests where they live…– Dr Jane Goodall, Conservationist
As with all other animals, bats are part of a larger ecosystem, and play a valuable role in keeping that chain together. Human activity has done much to disrupt this chain, resulting in over 200 species of bats being considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Much maligned mammals
As previously mentioned, bats are often viewed by western cultures as apparently malevolent creatures, doing the bidding of villains in horror stories of old, sucking blood and tormenting people. In more recent months, bats have been suspected as being the animals from which COVID-19 originated, but such claims often obscure the role humans may have played in this story.
In a number of countries, including China, bats are often considered a delicacy. Living in caves, bats have been repeatedly hunted down, and for many years, vendors have taken them to sell at wet markets – food markets in which fresh meat, fish and other produce are displayed in the open. In many cases, wet markets such as those operated in China resulted in large numbers of animals being held in confined and unsanitary conditions, clustered together in cages.
Globally, bats are considered to serve as reservoirs for a wide range of viruses and pathogens. However, the Bat Conservation Trust speculates that COVID-19 may have passed from bats to an intermediary animal before mutating into a disease which could infect humans. If this theory is true, it suggests that bats aren’t the culprits of this deadly disease, but rather its first victims, the unwitting carriers of a disease, establishing a chain of infection that leads right up to our very own door.
The need to change our ways
The operation of wet markets thus becomes the ideal melting pot to allow such viruses to propagate – animals kept in close quarters, transmitting various diseases between one another, before being consumed by humans. Had human beings not ventured into uncharted depths of the natural environment and hunted various animals for their meat, it is quite possible a number of diseases might not have even been exposed to us.
Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned conservationist, spoke to journalist Fredrik Skavlan on his Scandinavian talk-show, Skavlan, in May 2020, discussing the role bats have played during the pandemic.
When asked about this subject, Dr Goodall claimed: “I blame us; the bats are perfectly fine if they’re left alone, where they belong. But the trouble is we’ve invaded their habitat, we’re destroying the forests where they live…Usually, it’s the bat infecting some other animal, because they’re all being crowded together, and then that jumps into us and creates yet another [disease], which is bad for us, but it’s our fault.”
The story of the origins surrounding COVID-19 remains shrouded in mystery, but we have evidence to suggest that bats may have been wrongly maligned for spreading a disease, given that it was humans who disrupted the delicate balance of nature ourselves for our own ends. Conservation of endangered species of bats is a major concern in the UK and beyond.
Ending the practice of wet markets in countries such as China and the hunting of bats are just some of the steps needed to protect not only bat populations, but potentially save human lives down the road.
The Bat Conservation Trust is just one of many organisations established to aid with bat conservation in the UK, which helps support local groups across the country, working with politicians, scientists, businesses and volunteers to keep count of bats swooping over our heads. It does so, while building an advocacy movement designed to educate people, protect the places bats call home and conduct research.