Leave Bats Alone

By Sharon Atieno

Though bats have been linked to various diseases globally including Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, Hendra, Middle East respiratory coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and COVID-19 among others, human interference in most instances have contributed significantly to these transmissions.

Speaking during a Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) biodiversity café in Nairobi, Kenya, Bernard Agwanda, research scientist and curator, National Museums of Kenya called for the need to avoid such interferences to prevent the occurrence of spillover events (spread of virus from the bats to human beings).

Bernard Agwanda, Research Scientist and curator, National Museums of Kenya

He observed that bats have many viruses but very few are transmitted to human beings.  “Bush meat harvesting of bats or butchering bats or handling them particularly when they look sick is one way of getting the virus out,” Agwanda said.

“Interacting with the bats directly is the cause whether you are butchering to eat or sampling them or you are unknowingly touching where they are. That’s how the transmission occurs.”

For instance, he noted that the first cases of people who suffered from Marburg virus in Uganda, went to the caves to look for minerals and caught the virus by touching bats or the bat fluids including the saliva, the urine or the poop or a combination of all of them.

“There are some viruses we have found in bats which nobody has reported them to cause any disease, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause diseases neither does it mean that they cause diseases. But there are viruses that we know cause diseases and we have found them in a particular bat in a particular location,” Agwanda said.

One of the viruses which have not been reported to cause diseases includes the Shimoni bat virus, a type of rabies virus, found in the Hipposideros bat species around Shimoni area in Kenya’s Coastal region.

Contrastingly, the Lagos bat virus was found in the Straw-coloured fruit bat species in Maseno, a region in the Western part of Kenya. The virus has led to fatal cases in Zimbabwe and Nigeria but no case has been reported in Kenya.

“Unlike Shimoni which we don’t know, this one we know it can cause problems but we found it in bats but didn’t find it in people,” he reiterated.

Agwanda observed that every species in the ecosystem including bats have a role to play. Bats help in plant pollination and seed dispersal as there are bat species which feed only on fruits and leaves. In the process, they play an important role in helping regrowth after forest clearance.

Additionally, they help in pests and parasite management as there are some who feed on mosquitoes, beetles, moths and leafhoppers among others which would be a bother to human beings in terms of food security and spread of diseases.

For human beings and bats and other wildlife to co-exist peacefully and thus reduce the risk of viruses jumping from them to human beings, he recommended the need to avoid any physical contact with them including touching, hugging and kissing them as this creates a bridge for the virus to move from them to human beings.

Also, people should consult experts in cases where an animal is enforcing its interaction on them, for instance a bat can be in the house and it doesn’t seem to want to fly out or is struggling to fly and dropping. This is because the virus may make the animal sick and “mad” causing it to behave irregularly.

At the government level, there must be certain policies and guidelines on how to appreciate nature and give incentives to people who do their best to protect nature, he said, adding that unless this is done, it will be difficult for the government to protect wildlife outside protected areas.

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