An irrational fear of bats — chiroptophobia — has gripped Kerala even as the state battles the zoonotic Nipah virus for the fourth time in five years.
The fear is largely unfounded. Experts keep swearing that the transmission of the deadly virus from these flying mammals is yet to be established.
However, reports from various parts of the state spoke about people targeting the winged-mammals who are creatures of the night. Instances of culling bats and destroying colonies — including those in magisterial trees — have been reported ever since Nipah was detected in the second week of September in Kozhikode.
Adding to the fear is the belief that bats represent darkness, death, and the supernatural — a superstition generously promoted by spooky folklore, literature, and movies.
Giving a fillip to the popular mood, farmers’ organisations like the Kerala Independent Farmers’ Association (KIFA) have demanded governmental nod to cull bats and wild boars to check the spread of Nipah in the eastern parts of the Kozhikode district.
Chiroptophobia is now a reality despite agencies such as the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) trying to alleviate myths associated with bats, and create awareness about their role in the ecosystem ad in protecting the agricultural economy.
Culling not feasible
According to PO Nameer, head of the Centre for Wildlife Studies at the College of Forestry, Kerala Agricultural University, mass culling of bats is not a feasible solution to address the recurrence of Nipah. He mooted concerted efforts to unravel the real reasons behind the outbreak.
Until recently, fruit bats were considered to be the only carriers of the Nipah virus among all bat species. However, a recent analysis involving Nameer found that at least 11 species of bats in the country are carriers of the zoonotic disease.
“All these species are found across India, and none is endemic to Kozhikode. So, the immediate need is to unearth the real reasons for the transmission of the disease. In the case of fruit bats, they prefer to live outside the forests,” Nameer told South First.
“There is no substance in the campaign that an increase in the forest cover, especially in the Janakikkadu region of Kozhikode, has contributed to an increase in the fruit bat population,” he added.
“The species identified as probable carriers of the virus normally live in colonies on huge trees outside the forests,” he said. “So far, these is only speculation. Actions based on speculation would further worsen the situation,” Nameer said.
The expert pointed out that humans have coexisted with bats since time immemorial.
“They play an important role in maintaining our ecosystem. We need to evolve clear scientific conclusions to deal with the present challenge,” he opined.
Nameer recommended detailed studies on samples since Nipah’s presence is now suspected in more bat species. Such conclusive studies will help people to take necessary precautions to avoid catching the virus in the future.
Environmentalists point out that bats were subjected to massive culling in the state during all the previous outbreaks of Nipah.
In 2021, the station house officer of a police station in Thrissur summoned the office bearers of a resident association in his jurisdictional area and issued an ultimatum to axe six giant trees on a vacant plot.
Those trees housed one of the largest bat colonies in the area.
The officer told them that such a huge population of bats within city limits posed a severe threat to life.
The residents obeyed, and a team of police constables assisted them in cutting and removing the trees and chasing away hundreds of bats occupying them for several decades.
Local newspapers lauded the police’s “timely intervention” in eradicating a significant “health hazard”.
Environmentalists alleged that bats are turning into easy targets for local self-governments, law enforcers, and community organisations across Kerala during each outbreak of Nipah.
Over the past five years, giant old trees hosting bat colonies have been axed. Firecrackers, too, were liberally used to scare away bats that live in small colonies in the forest fringes and rural areas.
The fear of bats is so high this time in Kerala that a dental student got himself admitted to the Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram with a suspected Nipah infection after being hit by a bat while he was riding a two-wheeler. The student was discharged after the swab tests returned a negative.
In Kozhikode and its surrounding areas, greengrocers are badly hit with people refusing to buy fruits, fearing that they have been eaten by bats.
According to chiropterologist Sreehari Raman of Kollam, now researching bats at the Beijing-based Chinese Institute of Sciences, the scientific community has not been able to link the Nipah outbreak with bats living in the area.
The source of Nipah is still unknown, Raman said. He had helped the Kerala Health Department to collect samples from bat-infested areas in Kozhikode. The samples were sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune.
In Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, a major bat colony located adjacent to the State Bank of India’s zonal office at South Fort was destroyed in 2021 following the Nipah scare.
The city municipal corporation removed three giant trees sheltering bats and other creatures.
“There was a time when we clicked pictures of hundreds of bats that occupied the huge trees at South Fort. Now, those trees are not in existence. Vested interests and poachers cited the Nipah virus to hunt bats. Knowingly or unknowingly, local authorities and police are falling prey to their traps,” a retired bank official and nature photographer Rajan Robert said.
India is home to 128 species of bats, and there is very little information about their population and the areas each variety occupies. Studies on their capability to spread diseases are at the primary stage. Most targeted bats are endangered.
In Kerala, the present hunt’s main targets are three fruit bat varieties. The most vulnerable among them is the Indian flying fox, the largest bat, commonly seen in large numbers on tall trees.
Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat is another species endemic to Kerala’s Western Ghat rainforest pockets. The Fulvous Fruit Bat, is the third one. They are found in caves, wells, and tunnels.
“Fruit bats have a long legacy as important pollinators and seed dispersers. As far as the insectivorous bats are concerned, they are helping farmers to control insects,” Raman, who is now preparing India’s most extensive database on bats, said.
Across India, bats face significant habitat loss and are prone to fatally colliding with wind turbine blades. Experts say removing colonies by axing trees would yield a different result since the bats would find alternative trees. Mass culling poses a severe threat to the species and its existence.
“Going by science, every animal species has some virus that poses a potential risk to other species. Suppose all bats carry pandemic viruses, the country’s human population would have already been wiped out. It is foolish to remain scared,” Raman opined.
“Over the past five decades, several unsubstantiated attempts were made linking emerging diseases with bats and other species. But we forget that some of the most valued crops depend on flying foxes and their closest relatives for pollination. As far as the flying foxes are concerned, they are acknowledged widely as southeast Asia’s most important long-distance seed dispersers and are essential for reforestation,” he told South First.
Experts also said viruses, if present in bats, would become virulent if they lost their habitats.
After losing their colonies, bats would become stressed and hungry, weakening their immune systems. It would increase the virus levels, and there are chances of the virus then spreading through their urine and saliva.