PHOTHARAM, Thailand — The bat caves reeked of bat.
Within the murk of the grottoes, in a cave advanced west of Bangkok, Thais in headlamps and with flashlights went about their enterprise.
Pilgrims to the temple that owns the advanced prayed to Buddha collectible figurines in one of many caves, the statues’ carved expressions betraying no response to the plip-plop-ploop of bat droppings falling on their shoulders.
Collectors of bat dung, or guano, scraped up the droppings to promote as fertilizer, hefting baggage of manure by an impediment course of stalactites and stalagmites.
And medical researchers, overseen by one of many world’s foremost bat virologists, trapped the winged mammals to check them for traces of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Scientists imagine it originated in bats.
Outdoors the advanced, the abbot of the Buddhist temple, which calls itself the “temple of lots of of tens of millions of bats,” took to a loudspeaker to inform guests that the resident flying mammals have been innocent.
“Don’t fear, these bats don’t carry illness as a result of they’re insect-eating bats,” Phra Khru Witsuthananthakhun, the abbot, mentioned. “Everybody is aware of that when fruit bats eat fruit, they share it with different animals, equivalent to rats, and that’s how illness spreads.”
The temple’s abbot is right that fruit-eating bats have been linked to severe viruses which have leapt into the human inhabitants. However insect-eating bats have given people their share of lethal sicknesses. Many virologists imagine the horseshoe bat, an avid bug eater, could also be linked to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. And a Thai nationwide park report recognized a species of horseshoe bat within the caves.
The world across the caves, Photharam District in Ratchaburi Province, has tied its fortunes to bats — drawing vacationers, fertilizer corporations and, most essential of late, the chiropterologists, scientists who examine flying mammals.
On the native financial system’s tiny, fluttering coronary heart — some bats can fluctuate their coronary heart price by 800 beats per minute — is Khao Chong Phran Temple, which owns the limestone grottoes the place the bats shelter throughout the day. In a single cave alone, there are three million bats from 10 totally different species.
Practically one-quarter of the world’s mammal species are bats, and their capability to fly whereas internet hosting a petri dish of viruses makes them each zoological marvels and environment friendly vectors of illness. Infectious illnesses which can be believed to have emerged from bats in latest a long time embody coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, together with different viruses like Nipah, Hendra and Ebola.
Most of those viruses have been transferred from bats to an intermediate host, like a palm civet or camel, earlier than making their solution to people.
Though the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which got here to public consideration in late 2019, has not been conclusively traced to bats, in Yunnan Province in southwestern China, a researcher discovered proof in horseshoe bats of a virus that intently resembles it. Horseshoe bat droppings from Cambodia have additionally proven some linkages. And the identical form of bat was the pure reservoir for the SARS coronavirus.
The invention of the doable connection between horseshoe bats and the coronavirus linked to Covid-19 prompted Dr. Supaporn Watcharaprueksadee, the deputy chief of the Heart for Rising Infectious Illness of Thailand and a specialist in bat-borne viruses, to analyze whether or not bats in Thailand, which isn’t removed from Yunnan and Cambodia, might share the same viral load.
Dr. Supaporn mentioned her crew has discovered no hint of a coronavirus just like the one which causes Covid-19 within the bats of Khao Chong Phran Temple though different coronaviruses have been found there. Nor has she discovered any horseshoe bats there.
Testing of human residents in and round Khao Chong Phran, together with of guano collectors who’ve spent a long time in proximity with bats, turned up no antibody proof of the virus, both.
Nonetheless, the sight of researchers, clad head to toe in private protecting gear, has shocked a neighborhood that depends on bats as its financial mainstay.
“There’s no Covid right here,” mentioned Auenjit Kaewtako, a district well being volunteer who has been coming to Khao Chong Phran for 40 years. “Why ought to we blame the bats?”
Though Thailand was the primary nation outdoors of China to substantiate a case of Covid-19 — in a Chinese language vacationer visiting final January — the nation had appeared since Could to have all but strangled local transmission. Thais have been usually vigilant about sporting face masks, and the nation’s borders have been ordered closed to forestall the virus from arriving from overseas.
However in latest weeks, the coronavirus has begun spreading throughout the nation after first being recognized in migrant communities working alongside the porous border with Myanmar. Thailand went from no circumstances of native transmission in months to reporting lots of of circumstances a day in late December and January.
Xenophobia has spiked, together with chiroptophobia, the worry of bats.
Within the view of the guano collectors of Khao Chong Phran, which isn’t removed from the frontier with Myanmar, the anxiousness attributable to bats is overblown. There are 17 species of bats within the space, and solely two are fruit-eating bats tied with the unfold of illness, they are saying. The remaining eat bugs, which suggests the bat droppings shimmer with iridescent residue from bug wings.
“Even earlier than my grandfather’s technology, we collected guano from the caves,” mentioned Jaew Yemcem, 65, resting on the temple grounds along with her naked toes nestled in mushy mounds of bat excrement. “They have been wonderful, and we’re wonderful.”
Each Saturday morning earlier than daybreak, Khao Chong Phran permits guano collectors, some sporting home made balaclavas to guard themselves from dripping dung, to enter the caves and mine for the nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Most of the staff stroll barefoot to higher negotiate a floor slippery with condensation and bat gunk.
After shopping for the guano from the collectors, the temple auctions it to farmers or agricultural middlemen, who say only a handful of the fertilizer added an alluring sweetness to guavas and a formidable girth to papayas.
The collectors obtain about 85 cents per bucket of guano and might accumulate a dozen pails every day in the event that they’re fortunate.
In some Southeast Asian international locations, bats are prized consuming. Whereas temple stalls at Khao Chong Phran as soon as offered barbecued bats, locals not eat them as a result of they’ve been designated protected animals, mentioned Dr. Supaporn, who has been researching the world’s bats for a decade.
However Prangthip Yencem, who works as a cook dinner’s assistant at a neighborhood faculty throughout the week and mines guano on Saturdays, mentioned bat consumption, whereas decrease, continues. Bat tastes good in any variety of preparations, she mentioned, together with sautéed with chile and holy basil or deep-fried with garlic and white pepper.
For males, bat blood with a shot of alcohol is an invigorating cocktail, she mentioned.
Residents of the world don’t hunt bats anymore for the reason that abbot has warned them in opposition to it, Ms. Prangthip mentioned. But when the odd bat occurs to fly right into a phone pole and plummet to the bottom, who would flip down a free meal?
“Even now folks eat bats,” she mentioned, “and so they don’t get Covid.”
The inhabitants of bats in Photharam District has declined in latest a long time, victims of the city sprawl that’s consuming up rural Thailand. The heavy use of pesticides has additionally disadvantaged bats of their meals.
With fewer bats round, there may be half as a lot guano collected as a decade in the past. The existence of fewer bats has disrupted pollination patterns, harming tropical ecosystems in the same solution to the decline in bees.
And, crucially, some bat virologists imagine a spike in stress amongst bats may make the animals extra weak to signs of illness, presumably growing the possibilities of viruses leaping to different species.
Usually, bats can dwell wholesome lives with a number of viruses coursing by their our bodies. However the accouterments of human growth — tall buildings, electrical energy wires and expanses of cement — might stress bat our bodies as they work additional time to make use of echolocation, the pinging of sound frequencies to find out their environment.
Phra Somnuek, now a monk on the temple, remembers when he was a baby the sky darkened for greater than two hours at nightfall with the shadows of tens of millions of bats heading out for his or her night feeds. The flight of the bats, nonetheless a vacationer attraction, is now carried out in 45 minutes, he mentioned.
“I’m frightened that someday bats will solely be a legend right here,” he mentioned. “If we lose our bats, we lose what makes us particular.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.