BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
2/14/17

 

Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”

 

At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”

When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.

 

Continuing, we learn that, “One reason why bats are so dangerous is they have this weird ability to carry a lot of deadly viruses, in their spit, their pee, their poop, and because they fly they can spread these viruses over huge distances. So when there are bats up in the sky there could be Ebola in that poop that lands on your shoulder.” Despite millions of dollars having been invested in attempts to prove bats to be the natural reservoir for Ebola, the latest evidence points elsewhere. Furthermore, there is no evidence that spit, pee, or poop falling on a human from a flying bat has ever transmitted a disease in world history.

Merlin Tuttle photographing woolly bat habitat in a Bornean rainforest. He views such forests as goldmines for discovery, never once having contracted a virus from a bat despite his frequent close-up contact with hundreds of species.

 

I and hundreds of other bat researchers worldwide, have spent thousands of hours studying bats in all habitats where they live, sometimes surrounded by millions in caves, and not one of us has ever contracted one of the so-called emerging viruses that our government is now reportedly spending $200 million to find before they find us. Like veterinarians, we are vaccinated against rabies in case we’re occasionally bitten by an unfamiliar animal we’re handling. But that’s all we are protected against. The odds of harm for anyone who doesn’t attempt to handle bats is incalculably small.

 

The virus hunter reports having found 48 new viruses in the Bornean rainforest as though it’s a big deal. However, because only a tiny fraction of the world’s viruses have yet been discovered, new ones are easy to find anywhere, even on our own bodies. Because we only hear of the few viruses that are deadly, we tend to view them all as killers, though many may be essential to human well-being, even viruses that are related to dangerous ones.

 

Tiny woolly bats were recently discovered living in pitcher plants that, instead of eating them, feed on their droppings. The shadow just below the opening of this pitcher is caused by a roosting bat.

We’re told that the virus hunter “loves bats.” He explains that what sounds like a rapidly growing epidemic of new killer viruses is our fault. We’re cutting the forests where they live, forcing them to live near our homes. But he also reports that they are even found in school yards where kids play. “If a kid gets too close he could pick up a new virus. You can see this all over the world.” In my experience, such claims are typically made by those who profit from public fear of bats, not by those who appreciate and wish to protect bats as essential contributors to human well-being.

 

The text version of the interview is only slightly less scary. It warns that, “Over the past century, the number of new infectious diseases cropping up each year has nearly quadrupled,” not mentioning that most of these are rare and simply over looked prior to the arrival of more sophisticated medical diagnoses.

A bird’s-eye view of a woolly bat asleep in its pitcher.

Virus hunters reportedly want to “find the next pandemic virus before it finds us.” The print version does warn that bats “do a lot of good for the environment” and shouldn’t be killed. In fact, NPR finally admits that, “Some infectious disease scientists think creating a long list of viruses isn’t very helpful. They say money could be better spent on diseases we actually have now instead of trying to guess which ones might become a problem someday.

 

Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, points out that “We’re not even making vaccines for viruses that we know are threats, that are regularly killing people.” He voices an important question. “How are we going to convince people to invest money into a virus from a remote jungle for which we have no evidence that it has caused any human illness?” Perhaps this is the question that in its search for a sensational, listener-captivating story, NPR should have covered. Just why are we investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a search for new viruses in far off jungles instead of funding treatments for those that are already killing us at home?

A woolly bat {Kerivoula hardwickii} returning to its pitcher plant home in Borneo. The entrance is shaped to reflect the bat’s echolocation, guiding it’s approach like lights guide pilots at night on airport runways. This tiny 4-gram bat and a species of pitcher plant have co-evolved special adaptations that facilitate each other’s needs.

TAKE ACTION ON BEHALF OF BATS!

Nothing threatens bats more than sensational scare stories, and this is one of the worst yet. If we truly care about bats we cannot afford to allow such stories to go unchallenged. Decades of experience demonstrate that people do kill what they fear. Help us protect bats by lending your voice and telling NPR that they’ve disappointed you by presenting speculation as exaggerated fact. Together we make a difference!

What To Do
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out:

  • NPR Contact Form: select Contact an NPR Department and select NPR Management.
  • Email:
    • jgreenhalgh@npr.org, NPR Senior Editor, Jane Greenhalgh
    • mdoucleff@npr.org, NPR Science Desk Reporter, Michaeleen Doucleff
  • Twitter:
  • Facebook: Share your thoughts in a status update and tag NPR, @NPR

What To Say
Editors jobs depend on readership; feedback is valuable and they pay attention when lots of people express their concern and care. Use your own words to tell them what you think.
OR
Copy and Paste the following,

I am very disappointed to see a source I had trusted present speculation as greatly embellished fact. Bats are extremely valuable and I want to see stories about how they benefit the world and all of us humans, not this exaggerated scary stuff.

 

Below is Merlin’s personal response to the reporter of this story.

My wife and I regularly listen to NPR as an objective and reliable source of information. So as a bat researcher and conservationist, I especially looked forward to hearing your program, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, which aired February 14th on All Things Considered. To put it mildly, we were seriously disappointed by the misleading and needlessly sensational content. Much of what was said was speculation turned into “fact.”

As one who has spent more than 50 years studying and conserving bats worldwide, handling hundreds of species, and having led months-long expeditions in remote jungle campsites, I am well aware that speculated hazards were vastly overstated. Bats certainly don’t rank among the world’s most dangerous animals. In fact while some 14,000 West Africans were being killed by Ebola, twice that many Americans died from dog attacks. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence points away from bats as Ebola reservoirs.

Not surprisingly, those who do the most to create fear of bats are also the ones who profit most from public fear. Please don’t take my comments too personally. I am aware that you were likely victimized by sources you thought you could trust. Nevertheless, at a time when both bats and rainforests are in alarming decline, we need far greater emphasis on overcoming needless fear, combined with understanding the vital importance of saving both bats and rainforests. If ever you are interested, I’d be happy to help.

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Australian Flying Foxes Need Help

By Merlin Tuttle
1/10/17

As one who in 1985 played a lead role in convincing the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for the Environment and Planning, Bob Carr, to provide statewide protection for flying foxes, I am extremely disappointed to see  such progress reversed decades later by a predecessor. Grey-headed flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers upon which many of Australia’s unique plants and animals rely.

Nevertheless, their numbers have declined dramatically over the past hundred years. They first were massively exterminated by fruit growers, because during periodic droughts, when forests failed to flower, starving bats would invade orchards. Thanks to excellent research, orchards can now be protected. However, the bats’ traditional roosting habitats often have been overrun by urbanization. Once again these bats are in trouble, often with few options remaining. In small numbers, they may be enjoyed. But during unpredictable spikes in gum tree flowering, these sophisticated commuters can be attracted long distances. When bats weighing up to two pounds and having wingspans of more than three feet suddenly increase by as much as 10-fold, noise and odor can become a serious problem.

Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort ot orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.
Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. This grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) pollinating a rose gum tree (Angophora costata). Flying foxes are the continent’s most important long-distance pollinators and seed dispersers. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort to orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.

Excellent means of protecting fruit orchards have been developed, but urban nuisances have not yet been studied sufficiently to find viable solutions. As flying fox experts, Justin Welbergen and Peggy Eby recently explained in their insightful article, Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying foxes in urban Australiagrey-headed flying foxes can travel thousands of kilometers in a single year and quickly respond to changing conditions far beyond the boundaries of any one state. To resolve nuisances without loss of essential services, we must learn much more about what attracts them to specific roosts and how best to provide suitable alternatives when their choices create nuisances. (more…)

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Response to long-term oil & gas draft permit proposal

Merlin has been asked to comment on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to prepare a draft of a 50-year environmental impact statement that will affect bats and humans.

Proposal Summary–The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announces their intent to prepare a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for proposed issuance of an incidental take permit (ITP) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the draft Oil & Gas Coalition Multi-State Habitat Conservation Plan (O&G HCP). The O&G HCP is being developed to streamline environmental permitting and compliance with the ESA for nine companies in conjunction with their respective midstream and upstream oil and gas exploration, production, and maintenance activities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia over a 50-year period. The companies have indicated that they intend to request ITP coverage for five bat species: The endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the threatened northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), the eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), and the tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus).

For more information and details about the intended proposal, click HERE.

Merlin has provided his statement below after discussing the proposal with a U.S. FWS representative.

We invite you to leave your comments as well via this link. The deadline for comments is December 27th.

(more…)

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Bat Knowledge Shared at the Vatican

 

Bat Knowledge Shared at the Vatican

Merlin was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” at the Vatican, on November 2. The meeting was hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab of University of California, Berkeley and REIL, an interdisciplinary experts group.  The purpose was to extend the influence of this historic document promoting care of the environment. Thirty leaders from various fields were invited, including law, policy, finance, science, and religion.  The goal was to collaborate in promoting care of nature as essential to human wellbeing.  Merlin presented his experiences documenting values of protecting even such traditionally unpopular animals as bats, and benefited from lively discussions.

 

Roundtable participants at the Vatican
Roundtable participants at the Vatican

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Algerian Bat Group Workshop Success

Les Chauves Souris D’algerie, ALGERIAN BAT GROUP recently held a bat workshop in Algeria, hosted by Professor Mourad Ahmim of the University of Bejaia. The workshop focused on the importance of bats and their impact on the national economy.

Merlin was asked to provide this 8-minute video introduction for workshop participants, giving them an overview of bat values and exhorting them to protect the bats of Algeria.

 

The workshop resulted in the first protection of a cave in Aokas, Algeria. The Cave of Aokas is now officially protected by a communal decree in memory of a former leader in European bat conservation, and much valued friend of Merlin’s, the late Professor Jiri Gaisler who discovered the cave and first studied its bats.

(more…)

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The Power of Bat Photos

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Stellaluna was brilliantly written and beautifully illustrated by one of our first Bat Fans, Janell Cannon. It’s the story of a baby fruit bat who gets separated from its mother. Since publication in 1993 this book has been translated into 30 languages. Stellaluna is a classic that significantly helped to endear kids, big and small, to if not love bats, at least appreciate them better, much the same as Merlin’s photographs.

 

In fact, Janell credits Merlin’s 1986 National Geographic article “Gentle Flyers of the African Night,” about epauletted fruit bats, for inspiring Stellaluna.

Janell recently emailed Merlin to share one of her community presentations, explaining how much she appreciated free use of his website photos. We love, love, love this kind of feedback! It Illustrates one of the many ways our website photos are making a difference for bats. As Bat Fan numbers grow, we’re happy to see the wide variety of creative uses individuals and institutions are making of our website gallery. Please share with us how you’re using our photos in your corner of the world to make it better for bats and people. (more…)

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BAT FLASH! Countering Irresponsible Speculation that Threatens both Bats and Public Health

What’s going on?
The October 26, 2016 issue of ScienceDaily published an especially misleading story that poses a direct threat to both bats and public health. In this story, a fragment of an influenza A-like virus was discovered in a Latin American fruit-eating bat. The initial conclusion was that it posed “little, if any, pandemic threat to humans.”

A little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium), an invaluable seed disperser, now prematurely speculated to be dangerous.
A little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium), an invaluable seed disperser, now prematurely speculated to be dangerous.

A team of lab scientists then used this new influenza-like material to bio-engineer a new influenza virus. To do this, they analyzed cells from over 30 different viral species for their capacity to become hosts. Then the cell that was most susceptible to the engineered virus was tested and found capable of infecting a variety of cells, including those of humans.

The resulting publication ends with this self-serving justification. “Bats are natural hosts for several highly pathogenic viruses. In the past, Ebola and rabies virus were repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans and caused deadly diseases. The new observation that human cells can be infected with bat influenza A-like viruses is a hint that these viruses could also potentially be transmitted to humans. Although there is no evidence yet for such transmissions, the new findings are a wake-up call for more research.”

The claim that Ebola has been repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans is false, completely lacking in scientific documentation, and the authors fail to admit that bat-transmitted rabies is one of our planet’s rarest human disease threats. It’s time to focus on real threats, like cancer and obesity.

What to do.

Please contact their editorial department and let them know that you strongly disapprove of their story which needlessly threatens bats and diverts public health dollars from far greater threats. Even if you simply state your strong dislike of the misleading story, with no further explanation, you can have major impact. Editors, are hired and fired based on readership trends. They don’t dare offend large numbers of readers.

What are friends for?

Reinforcement. So use them. Talk about it. Tweet about it. Tell all your pals. The bigger our voice, the bigger our muscle!

Until next time, Bat Fan…. Thanks for being there!

 

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