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Leave bats alone in their habitats for a pandemic-free future, says study


Published on: June 7, 2023 | Updated on: June 7, 2023

Bats that were not visible for most parts of the day have been sighted in certain places during the day due to irreparable damage done to their habitat.

New Delhi: Scientists make the case that pandemic prevention requires a global taboo or ban whereby mankind agreed to leave bats alone, to let them have the habitats they need, undisturbed, in a study published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.

The researchers from Cornell University, US, along with those from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), US, say that while we may never know the exact means by which a bat virus, to which the COVID-19 pandemic and SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003 can be traced, we do not need to know all of the details in order to act.

Bats are known to be a source of rabies, Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah paramyxoviruses, coronaviruses such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus, and fruit bats are strongly believed to be a source of Ebolaviruses.

This analysis, the researchers said, points to the value of humanity globally not fearing them or trying to chase them or culling them, all of them being activities only serving to disperse them and increase the odds of a zoonotic spillover.

They emphasised that humanity simply must take the most basic, common-sense upstream steps to lower our risk of incurring another pandemic - at the interface where dangerous viruses can actually move from animals into people.

"In a globalised world with 8 billion people, we can no longer ignore our interconnectedness with the wildlife and ecosystems around us. We must change humanity's relationship with nature if we want to prevent the next pandemic of zoonotic origin - and that can start with bats," said Susan Lieberman, WCS's Vice President for International Policy.

Calling for humanity to change its broken relationship with nature, specifically wildlife and bats in particular, the study said that the costs of implementing human behavioural changes were insignificant compared to those of another global pandemic.

"If we can actually stop hunting, eating, and trading bats, stay out of their caves, keep livestock away from areas where bats are concentrated, and if we can stop deforesting, degrading, or even start restoring, their natural habitats, we can indisputably lower the chances of another pandemic," said Steven A. Osofsky, professor at Cornell and lead author of the study.

Allowing bats to survive and thrive will also pay billions of dollars in dividends in the form of the ecosystem services that bats provide, such as control of mosquitoes and other harmful insects, as well as pollination of a wide array of important crops, the authors said in their paper.

They further said that while humanity's relationships with other kinds of animals merited close scrutiny, respecting bats and the habitats they needed was truly the lowest hanging fruit of genuine upstream pandemic prevention - an important better-late-than-never message now that we've passed the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.