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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

Hidden from a clear view by our naked eye, the only true flying mammal hung upside down from a tree’s high branches. Sleeping through the sunlit morning, its eyes and made-for-manoeuvre-wings, snapped shut. Waiting for the darkness.To hunt prey. At night, one may have even seen a bat gliding. Before the pandemic.

For after that, it seems to have become prey. In April 2020, the bat roosts found in cave and building in two provinces of Cuba, were set on fire. In May 2020, people in four districts of Rajasthan, killed 150 bats, in a misdirected effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In September 2021, the only colony of fruit bats in the Nilgiris, is under threat as people want to cut down the trees they roost on. Out of fear? 

This when, different bat species remain important for varied reasons. For much of India’s agri-lands, bats act as a zero-cost biological pesticide, controlling pest populations. Useful broadcasters, they disperse the pollen which clings to their fur, especially while drinking the nectar of flowers blooming in the night. They are vital in preserving natural habitat across terrain, helping forest regeneration and growth of new forests too. But yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic where old and new conspiracy theories also meet?

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

Even though we have seen so many reports of bats being culled in many parts of India, it has not stopped the pandemic anywhere,” says Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, a Postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

As someone who has worked on bat conservation for many years across India, from Maharashtra to Telangana, she offers a more nuanced commentary, “Indians in general think bats are a bad omen. So, everything bad imaginable is associated with bats, because they emerge in the darkness, so darkness is synonymous with everything evil, thanks to our movies on Dracula and all. In India, even today you have lots of negative perceptions about bats.” But there is another side as well, she continues,“In certain pockets of Karnataka, there are bats roosting in their cowsheds and there are houses next to the cowsheds, they do not bother. Some are tolerant, some do not tolerate the presence or anything of bats.” 

So how did it shift when Covid- 19 hit all India? Dr. Bhargavi continues,“During the pandemic, it [attitude] was much more negative. People used to give us calls and then ask us — we can see bats flying around, how do we kill them, we are scared for our elderly and our children. What if they come in and bite and my grandmother or mother gets Corona.” She fielded worry and questions, why can’t they be culled, what is their use? Responding patiently, she explained how the coronavirus found in bats is different from the human one and the host that transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans still remains a complicated mystery. 

WHY WE NEED NOT MORE CAT, BUT BAT VIDEOS IN 2021

A recent study across 17 Spanish-speaking countries on human perception of bats, focused on the role of information and visual stimuli, in boosting a positive response. It also looked at how sociodemographic factors affect it. Published this April by Alex Boso, an associate professor of Social Sciences, at Chile’s University of La Frontera, the research team came together from departments of Forestry, Environmental Sciences, Zoology and Psychology from several universities in Chile. 

Shedding light on how providing information and aesthetic stimuli can increase a positive response towards bats, it experimented in four ways. The first two, solely visual stimuli, showing, say, only a picture of a panda bat and vampire bat. The third condition included both visual and informational stimuli together, in the form of a 72 second bat cartoon video, showing the who what where when why of bats in their natural home.The fourth and final condition offered no stimuli, visual or informational.The study found the third experimental condition, providing both informational and visual stimuli, gave a major boost to positive responses, in the attitude towards bats.

When it came to human responses in the study, males were found to have a more positive impression towards bats than females. Participants with a higher education level, ditto. Christians were seen to have a more negative attitude towards bats compared to those participants of other religions, or those who had no religious beliefs. Previous experience with bats was found to be a significant factor of influence. 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

If this study’s findings attempt a link between the nature of stimuli provided and the socio-economic, gender and religious belief being influential in attitudes toward the bat species, in India, Dr. Bhargavi, working largely in rural areas, places some responses in a wider experience and span of time. “When we spoke to the elders, they said when they were young boys, they used to go inside the caves and collect all the guanos [bat excreta] and use it as fertiliser in their crops. Their crops used to be so healthy. They also used to be healthy because they used to feed on non-chemical fertiliser food.” Once this link was broken by either ignorance and now fear, it has been and will continue to affect both human health and the wider ecosystem. 

In cases where there was once a close link between the community, ecosystem and bats, scientist-conservationists reached out.to share how people must let bats be. Or how people could  actively protect them, even during the pandemic. Dr. Bhargavi in her own work, specifically mentions being able to do this in Karnataka’s Kolar area,“When we were doing our various conservation activities, if we had not consistently gone there and told them repeatedly, over a period of time, you know, these [bats] are very important to the ecosystem, agriculture and all, based on scientific facts, videos and pictures. You have to go there and consistently talk to them in a scientific manner, break it down in a simpler manner.” Her field experience and the 2021 study’s centrality of providing clear information and visual stimuli, while in entirely different country contexts, in this way, do speak to each other. Infact a study published in China this February, by Wuhan’s Central China Normal University tried to understand how public fear would negatively affect bat conservation. Not only were the study findings similar, in the role previous knowledge of bats plays and influence of gender/education level of the respondents, there was also a new element.  

A specially curated bat conservation lecture. This, on the one hand, improved people’s attitude towards bats, but on the other, failed to clear the misconception surrounding the alleged transmission of the coronavirus to humans directly. The research recommended clarity in messaging around human-bat encounters for conservation of this much-maligned species. Batting for bat-science, it mentions public display of scientific facts on bats as well as highlighting their benefits. 

But beyond a few driven scientist-conservationists, including Dr. Bhargavi’s own partner, Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, more science and easy to understand information about bats, reaching the public, remains perhaps, as important as washing our hands. At the very least, in a National Wildlife Week being held during an ongoing pandemic.

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies. 

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