DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 29 September) — A team of experts discovered a strain of betacoronavirus in the bat species Cynopterus brachyotis during an exploratory surveillance in Malagos District here last year.
But Dr. Lyre Anni Murao, a professor of virology at the University of Philippines-Mindanao and director of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) Mindanao, said the subgenus Nobecovirus has a low pandemic potential.
She said it does not pose any alarming threat as there is still no scientific evidence to establish bat-to-human transmission of Nobecovirus.
“There is no evidence yet that Nobecoviruses can be transmitted to humans and other animal species. Since the bat betacoronavirus .. is so far restricted to fruit bats, it does not pose any direct harm to humans … does not pose a serious threat to public health based on current available scientific evidence,” she said.
According to a research paper, “First Molecular Evidence for Bat Betacoronavirus in Mindanao,” published in the Philippine Journal of Science March 2020 issue, last year’s discovery was the first reported detection of bat coronavirus in Mindanao, “hence further surveillance of circulating viruses in wildlife is recommended to expand the understanding” of its evolution and potential for zoonosis. “These findings emphasize the need to limit potential zoonotic transmissions through bat-animal or human interactions by preserving natural habitats.”
According to a World Health Organization report on the “Origin of SARS-CoV-2” released on March 26, 2020, all SARS-CoV-2 isolated from humans to date are closely related genetically to coronaviruses isolated from bat populations, specifically, bats from the genus Rhinolophus, found across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
SARS-CoV 2 is the virus that causes the coronavirus disease or COVID-19.
The SARS-CoV, the cause of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, was also closely related to coronaviruses isolated from bats, according to WHO.
“These close genetic relations suggest that they all have their ecological origin in bat populations. SARS-CoV-2 is not genetically related to other known coronaviruses found in farmed or domestic animals,” it said.
The WHO said a large proportion of the initial cases between December 2019 and January 2020 had a direct link to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan City in Hubei, China, where seafood, wild, and farmed animal species were sold.
“Many of the initial patients were either stall owners, market employees, or regular visitors to this market. Environmental samples taken from this market in December 2019 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, further suggesting that the market in Wuhan City was the source of this outbreak or played a role in the initial amplification of the outbreak,” the WHO reported.
Environmentalists and wildlife advocates renewed calls for conservation and protection of bats to avoid unleashing yet another global catastrophe similar to the most dreaded COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the economies of the world on their knees, including the Philippines.
COVID-19 and Karma
Norma Monfort, founder and President of the Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation, said the raging COVID-19 pandemic is a product of people’s own doing, for relentlessly abusing these creatures and other wildlife species.
“This is outright, I will tell you — karma. You catch wildlife. You are not supposed to eat wildlife. You don’t know that they are host to many viruses. You catch wildlife, why? If you eat any wildlife, you’ll be sorry if you get sick,” she told MindaNews.
The wildlife advocate manages the Monfort Bat Sanctuary, which sits on a 21-hectare property in Barangay Tambo, Babak, Island Garden City of Samal, more than two-hour’s ride from Davao City.
To avoid future pandemics, Monfort said: “Just leave the bats alone.”
As of September 28, the World Health Organization reported 33,034,598 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 996,342 deaths. In the Philippines, the number of cases has reached 307,288 out of which 49,242 are considered active cases.
In the Davao region, the Department of Health’s Center for Health Development recorded 2,961 cases, 493 of them active. A total of 88 did not survive.
Circulating in Southeast Asia
A similar strain of Nobecovirus was previously detected circulating among the Cynopterine bats in Southeast Asia, according to Murao.
“Based on current available scientific evidence, betacoronaviruses from fruit bats have very low pandemic potential, although its possibility cannot be totally discounted,” she said.
To prevent spillover of betacoronavirus infections, Murao recommended some policy interventions that she hopes would be set into motion such as conservation of bat habitats, strict implementation of wildlife protection laws, and nationwide one health surveillance system to continuously monitor the evolution and circulation of emerging pathogens such as bat betacoronaviruses in the wild.
To deepen their findings on the Nobecovirus, she said UP-Mindanao submitted a research proposal to the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development for the conduct of robust surveillance of bat betacoronaviruses and its spillover to other animals including humans, particularly in urban green spaces.
Launched on October 28, 2019, the state-of-the-art PGC-Mindanao, an expansion of PGC in UP Diliman, utilizes “omics research for scientific developments in the fields of health, ethnicity, agriculture, food safety and quality, environment, and biodiversity n Mindanao.”
Aside from financial support, Murao said that they would also need the cooperation of local government units and regulatory agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to conduct fieldwork and community assessment.
Importance of bats
Murao re-echoed the sentiments of environmentalists in putting a stop to practices that “harm bats including hunting, consumption, and trading.”
“Bats also carry diverse viruses which may jump to, and infect humans, if we continue disturbing their habitats and getting near them. Similar to our social distancing guidelines, we also have to keep a distance from bats in order to prevent unleashing another pandemic,” she said.
She said bats are essential to agriculture as they pollinate many economically valuable crops.
Wildlife advocate Rai Gomez, former educational administrator of the Philippine Eagle Foundation and now a Biology teacher at Davao Doctors College-Senior High School, recalled that even before the global COVID-19 scare, conservation advocates had been educating the people not to eat wildlife “not just for the diseases that they might carry but most importantly because they play an important role in the ecosystem.”
“Consumption and trading of wildlife should be stopped and not just of bats,” she said.
As equally important as curtailing illegal trading of wildlife and consumption, Gomez said, protection of habitats of wild animals should be strictly enforced, citing studies that linked loss of forest and biodiversity to the emergence of diseases.
“It’s high time that we realize that protecting wildlife, protecting forests is the same as protecting the quality of life that we have on this planet. The earth is a closed system, so what we do to one part of that system, affects all of us because we are part of that system,” she added.
Bats as farmworkers, peacekeepers
According to Monfort, Davao Region has been basking in agricultural success because of its good climate, fertile soil, and bats.
Monfort said the region owes the blessing of abundant harvest to these nocturnal creatures, which fill the region’s “fruit basket” to the brim, supporting the livelihood of thousands of farmers and others who rely on agriculture.
An estimated 2.5 million fruit bats would emerge from the Monfort Bat Cave, flying in packs for several kilometers across the Pakiputan Strait to hunt for food in the mainland and pollinate the fruit trees in the process while the people are comfortably tucked in their beds at night.
The 257-square-foot bat Monfort Bat Cave is the largest single colony of Geoffroy’s Rousette Fruit Bats, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
But Monfort lamented that fruit bats have received little credit for their work of keeping the biodiversity rich and vibrant, and are even portrayed as “ghoulish” creatures, feared and hated, in Hollywood movies.
“Unfortunately, the bats have always gotten bad press because, from the start, since they are nocturnal creatures, nobody knows about them, nobody sees what they do, and they’ve been connected to Hollywood and even before that—Dracula, monster, ghoulish thing. All of that are misconceptions about what the bats really are,” she said.
She said bats are major agents of reforestation as they fly deep into the forests, nurturing other species and supporting life by keeping the flora lush and green, where most essentials for survival are drawn, particularly food and medicines.
The fruit bats and the giant golden-crowned flying fox, the world’s largest bat species with a wingspan of six feet, are both found in the Philippines and are among 1,300 species of bats worldwide, according to her.
“Since the time of the dinosaurs, they have not changed. They’ve been here keeping everything green. Without the bats, there will be no life, there is no forest because they are the ones which start the forest. So without forest, you cannot have other species to grow as food and as medicine,” she said.
Farmers of the forest
Jayvee Jude Agas, head of the regional public affairs of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)-Davao, said the bats, tagged as the “farmers of the forests,” are key players in restoring the denuded forests through their ability of dispersing seeds across vast swathes of land.
“Because of them, our trees can grow again. They are tagged as the ‘farmers of the forest.’ These bats rely on plants, fruits, and flowers to survive,” she said.
Agas added that bats pollinate around 500 plants species, including flowers, bananas, durian, and other cash crops.
“Just like what other people say, we would not have durian as a banner fruit if not for these fruit-eating bats,” she said.
Gomez said bats play an important role in the ecosystem as seed dispersers, pollinators, and insect control agents.
Capable of flying over long distances in search of food, bats disperse seeds farther, she said.
“In fact, at home, we have seen seeds of talisay that have bat bite marks,” she said.
She said other organisms in a cave ecosystem rely heavily on bats for food.
“In a cave ecosystem, a lot of organisms depend on bats as source of food for cave dependent organism either through their guano or the bats themselves,” she said.
She said they are also biological control agents, keeping the pests that feast on crops in check.
“For insect control, there’s a species of bat that feeds on rice pest,” she said.
In 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that the regional performance of agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing sector registered a positive growth of 2.9 percent from 1.7 percent in 2017, owing to the 3.5-percent growth in the agriculture and fishery sub-sectors.
Conserve, Protect, Respect
Monfort believes that even Davao City’s successful tourism branding “Davao Life is Here” and the colorful Kadayawan celebration, an annual display of culture and bountiful harvest, is largely because of what bats do.
“I just want Region 11 (Davao) to give the long overdue credit to the bats. You always celebrate Kadayawan. Without the bats, there is no Kadayawan. What harvest? What bountiful harvest without bats? Who pollinates most, especially durian? It’s Davao product and yet no thank you to bats?” she said.
Region 11 or the Davao Region comprises the five Davao provinces – de Oro, del Norte, del Sur, Occidental and Oriental – and the cities of Davao, Tagum, Panabo, Samal, Digos and Mati.
She said that it is high time for people to give them the recognition that they deserve by keeping in mind the “CPR,” an acronym for “conserve, protect, and respect.”
“Just CPR, and wish them well every night that you go to bed to sleep, in your warm beds, when all my mothers fly with their babies,” she said.
Monfort said that people must not harm these gentle creatures.
In the past two decades, she has been actively campaigning to raise awareness on the importance of conserving the bats, a lifelong advocacy that she married into after discovering a roost of bats within her family’s 21-hectare estate. It later earned a global prominence for being the largest colony of fruit bats in the world.
“All the more reason why I care so much because it was given to me. It was put in my property. I didn’t know what to do then until I found out that the calling was for me to be the trustee of that bat cave, which is so important to Region 11,” she said.
Monfort added that the government must strengthen the enforcement of laws that seek to protect bats and other wildlife.
“Unfortunately, just like any other laws, the government is all textbooks, but the implementation leaves much to be desired, especially when it comes to bats. Nobody cares. I think it’s only me who really cares in that calling,” she said.
Agas explained that bats are among the wildlife species protected under Republic Act 9147, also known as the “Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act,” enacted in 2001 “to conserve and protect wildlife species and their habitats to promote ecological balance and enhance biological diversity; to regulate collection and trade of wildlife; to pursue, with due regard to the national interest, the Philippine commitment to international conventions, protection of wildlife and their habitats; and to initiate or support scientific studies on the conservation of biological diversity.
“The Samal Monfort Sanctuary is private. What we are doing is strengthening our information dissemination on bats because they are also wildlife. We share, in our information education campaign, to not harm the bats or kill them because they are protected by our law,” she said.
According to Agas, the number of fruit bats in the wild is of “least concern” compared to its close cousin, Dobsonia Chapmani, found in Negros, which is considered “critically endangered.”
She said the number of fruit bats in the wild is “quite a lot, but if we continue to threaten them like we kill or hunt them, they will eventually fall under the category of endangered or critically endangered.”
Monfort abhors the cruelty inflicted on fruit bats and urges the people to become more humane towards wildlife.
“The way they eat them, they massacre them, that’s so cruel. So, if you touch wildlife and we keep destroying our forest, then we encroach on their environment, so they come closer to the urban city where they are preyed on by people who would like to make fun of them, catch them, eat them, kill them. That’s so cruel when the work they are doing is so important to the world,” she said.
Agas said RA 9147 punishes all forms of cruelty against these creatures and other wildlife, including killing and destroying wildlife species; inflicting injury which cripples and/or impairs the reproductive system of wildlife species; trading of wildlife; collecting, hunting or possessing wildlife, their by-products and derivatives; gathering or destroying of active nests, nest trees, host plants and the like; maltreating and/or inflicting other injuries; transporting of wildlife; and dumping of waste products detrimental to wildlife, squatting or otherwise occupying any portion of the critical habitat, mineral exploration and/or extraction, burning, logging, and quarrying in critical habitats.
Contrary to undesirable portrayals of bats in movies, Monfort said they are gentle creatures and peacekeepers.
Without bats, Monfort says there will be war, as people will become more aggressive fighting over food when there is famine.
“How do you connect bats with war? I said, ‘if you don’t have forest, there is no food.’ That alone will tell you something that if there is famine because there are no more trees, no more food, and nobody pollinating, we are a desert, and then what? We will fight each other,” she said.
She encouraged the people to avoid encroaching on the bats’ habitats, and stop making them the subject of cruelty “because they are closely related to humans than any other mammals,” and share similar qualities in the way they nurse their young.
“They don’t attack. If you don’t encroach, they will not attack. Just like any animal that will protect their territory. But if we leave the bats alone, they are very gentle creatures. Another thing is, do not eat the bat,” she said. But she added that if bats are consumed by the poor as their source of protein, “do not get them by the sack loads, just get whatever you need.”
Monfort said the population of bats in the cave has already ballooned to 2.5 million recently from 1.8 million in 2006, making it difficult for many of the bats to rest on the walls of the cave’s packed cathedral during daytime.
To address this, her foundation is building a man-made bat cave, the first outside the United States, using the global grant from the Rotary International to expand the home of the fruit bats, a fulfillment of her vision in 2011.
“Imagine, I’ve been dreaming for it but there is no money. And, finally through Rotary, I submitted this global grant and it’s approved, and just waiting for the funds. We’re going to build it in Samal,” she said.
However, the construction has to take a backseat for now due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.
But when push comes to shove, she said it would be a boon to the island’s tourism and economic future, as well as the region’s agriculture industry.
“It will be a project that will benefit the community because, aside from building the artificial bat cave, the collection of the guano will have a technology that can allow us to do it without disturbing the bats,” she said.
Monfort said the reason why heaps of guano, a fortune sitting inside the cave, remain uncollected is to avoid stressing the bats resting during daytime after coming from a night’s work across the region.
“The collection of the guano — we will do it — and I can have a livelihood project, so that the community can benefit from packaging of this guano or any other thing that will be associated to the chiroptorium,” she said.
She said the population increased partly due to her conservation efforts and to the bats having no specific breeding season. Bats breed year-round, she said.
Bats roosting near the cave’s five entrances are vulnerable to the predation of crows while those that go down to the ground are vulnerable to lizards, snakes, rats, stray dogs and cats, Monfort said.
The artificial caves are to be constructed at the back of Monfort’s mango orchard, away from the existing bat cave.
To avoid disturbing the bats, construction will be done in the evening, when most of the nocturnal creatures would emerge from the cave and cross Davao Gulf, she said.
“The babies who cannot be carried by the mother are still inside the cave. That’s why, one group comes back at 2 a.m. and I think they come back to regurgitate the food to their babies,” she said.
The bat droppings called “guano” are expensive potent fertilizers.
Supporting whole ecosystems
According to Bat Conservation International, the guano in caves “support whole ecosystems of unique organisms, including bacteria useful in detoxifying wastes, improving detergents, and producing alcohol and antibiotics.”
While she was starting in 2000, Monfort enlisted the help of Bat Conservation International to educate her on bat conservation, having no idea what to do with the bat cave when she inherited the property from her parents. In 2004, Monfort filed for the conversion of her property as a conservation area for bats after the government attempted to include her land as part of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
Monfort is asking for donations of unused container vans that could be turned into man-made caves to alleviate the stress suffered by the bats due to congestion.
“One way of doing it inexpensively is hoping for donations of recycled container vans so that i don’t have to buy it with the funds, and use the money for something else because I only budgeted for two container vans but if we can get that donated and we can get another one, well, that would be wonderful. Donors can donate container vans, recycled, it doesn’t have to be new, because it will just be the form that we need,” she said.
The additional “cave” would help alleviate the stress of the bats due to the congested home, she said. Bringing in a new home would nurture a new wave of bats that would sustain the success of the region’s agriculture, she said.
Each container van costs around 120,000 pesos, she said.
“I’m sure they will find their way to these artificial caves because we will simulate the condition inside the Monfort Bat Cave for them to feel comfortable,” she said.
(Antonio L. Colina IV / MindaNews. The production of this special report was made possible with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network)