CRUCIBLE: Bats in Tawi-Tawi and COVID-19 (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 22 April) – With the immense issues and implications surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, I thought, if only I were a natural scientist, say, a biologist or virologist at most, the priority question that I’d like to find answers would be:

Were certain species of bats in Tawi-Tawi or in other parts of the Sulu Archipelago studied in foreign laboratories and, if found similar to, or determinant enough like, the bats in Zhoushan, China, could have been possibly extracted of their genetic content to constitute the genome sequence of Wuhan coronavirus also known as COVID-19?

This question is not meant to alarm people in the area on possible connection between bats in Tawi-Tawi and coronavirus or COVID-19. Neither does attempt to explore some answers on this question would be deemed final and conclusive given the complexity of question of COVID-19 that is fundamentally defined by science and geopolitics.

It is just that as bats are proven to be the source of genetic strain on SARS-COV-2 that causes COVID-19 like other previous variants (SARS-COV, SADS-COV, MERS-COV, HCoV-229E), my impulse to raise question must partly be logical. The other part is sheer serendipity.

Let me dwell first with my serendipity with bats.

I happened to be in Tawi-Tawi Province on a field work related to Islamic microfinance on 28 September 2019. I stayed for few hours near a big mosque in the Municipality of Panglima Sugala. After travelling to Barangay Ipil via a small pump boat, we returned to main island of Panglima Sugala as I wrote this line in my mobile phone calendar: “Return panglima sugala and intrvw mamah vendor at nearby mosque.”

After having a late lunch, I went to the mosque (which I came to know later was facilitated with its construction by Robin “Abdulaziz” Padilla) to pray combined juhur and asr prayers.

Before entering the mosque, I was struck with distinct sounds of bats flying to and fro two medium-sized mango trees just few meters away. I then directed my steps toward the trees but not near enough as I noticed a group of bats with their eerie, squeaking sounds; they seemed not the usual bats I used to frequently see in coconut trees near coastal areas in Indanan, Sulu Province in the ’70s and the small nocturnal bats in UP Diliman that thrived mostly at the darkest shades of Romulo Hall.

I took pictures and, upon zooming them in my old S3 phone, I noticed that they were indeed a different group of bats – with quite light, almost reddish eyes, having middle-sized bodies and smaller heads, and with their irritably squeaking sounds like faulty, screeching engine or scraping metal objects.

I stood near the mango trees gazing at the bats for few minutes. I felt awkward when I noticed a mamah (betelnut) vendor near the mosque’s gate looking at me. I walked toward him and opened a conversation about the bats. He said foreigners, in fact, did visit their area several times and observed the bats standing in the same location where I previously stood. I asked when was the last time those foreigners came and if they were milikan (Western looking) or Chinese-looking. He said just few months ago some of whom were Chinese-looking women.

I then proceeded to the mosque and prayed. After praying, I walked back to the mamah vendor as I put into record mode my phone. I wanted to capture the sound of the bats. Here is part of our conversation with participation of a third person who arrived later.

Mamah vendor: This is Sir who visits us and those bats.

Me: Those bats are big, huh?

Vendor: Yes, they’re big. The woman who came told me the name of [those species of] big bats and the small ones. But I was not interested; it was not my concern, you know.

Third person: The size of those bats does not matter; they are only small, medium, and large.

Vendor: We cannot blame those [foreigners studying the profile of bats]; it is their pangadji (field of interest).

Third person: As those bats are big, then they are big.

Vendor: You are proposing a kimbuh (dice) with only three sizes of bats – small, medium and large…[laughing].

Third person: There can possibly be in between medium-size and small size…[laughing].

When I noticed that our conversation was not yielding new information, I shifted our conversation to different issues. For more than 30 minutes, I recorded in my phone the squeaking sound of bats.

That was last year in Tawi-Tawi.

In 2018 in UP Diliman, I was surprised one morning when nets were sprawled above the exterior and darkest part of Romulo Hall. A group of researchers were trying to capture bats. I hardly mind them since those bats hanging in concrete ceiling of Romulo Hall were our frequent “visitors.” Unlike those in Panglima Sugala, bats at Romulo Hall were small and usually immobile except at night. They didn’t produce squeaking sounds.

In the ’70s in Indanan, it was common to see rebels or civilians with firearms “magpanimbak kabug” (bat hunting) for target practice. Tausugs did not eat them. Bats in Indanan were big and noiseless and usually observed “social distancing” as they hanged separately in coconut trees. They did not congregate in big numbers in one or two trees like the ones I saw in Panglima Sugala. Locals called them kabug; they were different from kabilaw – those smaller ones often found in caves or darkest areas of certain structure. Bats in Romulo Hall seemed to be small kabug although they are not kabilaw. Unlike in the ’70s and earlier years, today’s bats in Indanan were becoming rare. I did not see group of bats when I was in Siunogan, Indanan in September last year.

Few days ago, I called our security guard at the Romulo Hall in UP Diliman what she knew about those researchers. She said they were students from Biology Department. I also tried to connect with the mamah vendor in Panglima Sugala hoping to extract more information about the woman who informed him about the bats. An informant told me that he had left for Zamboanga City before the lockdown.

This is, so far, the serendipity part why my query on bats. The other part – the science and geopolitics – will be dealt in subsequent series.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines.]