Bats are not difficult to sell in Bolivian markets. They are usually hidden in pungent shoeboxes, some of which even squeeze more than 20 bats into them. Living bats linger on those who have died of disease or stress.
Figure 1: This short-tailed fruit bat faces various threats in Bolivia, including the need for its blood, which some believe is capable of curing diseases.
Bat blood is purchased for drinking because it is said to have therapeutic effects on many diseases. They believe that bat blood is especially helpful in the treatment of epilepsy. Bat expert Luis F. Aguirre explained: This belief is deeply rooted in our society, mainly around the Andes. I get at least five calls a year for advice on bat blood.
Aguirres job is not to sell bats to the highest bidder. Instead, over the past 20 years, as head of the Bat Protection Project in Bolivia, he has been working to protect these animals. The Bolivian Bat Conservation Project is a network of volunteers and professionals who study bats and correct misunderstandings about them. But since Aguirre is a very knowledgeable bat person and people want to live bats, many people contact him in the hope that he can help buy live bats.
I had a call from a Bolivian from France asking about bats, Aguirre said. The caller wanted to treat a childs epilepsy by feeding bat blood. In this case, Aguirre repeats the same statement: there is no evidence that drinking bat blood has any medicinal value, and he strongly opposes it.
However, such beliefs and killings still exist. According to official regulations, bat hunting is illegal. Bolivian law prohibits the killing or sale of any wildlife without proper permission, and offenders can be sentenced to up to six yearsimprisonment. Nevertheless, in a 2010 study published by Aguirre and his colleagues, Bolivia sold more than 3,000 bats a month in just four big cities. These bats are sold in a variety of ways, including fruit bats, insectivorous bats and vampire bats.
According to Aguirre, regular surveillance shows that although wildlife crime has attracted more attention and public pressure to tackle the problem is increasing, sales of wild bats are still at a fairly high level, or even increasing. The only real difference, he says, is that bats arent as publicly displayed and sold as they used to be, but its not hard to find them.
Although bat hunting is illegal, traditional medicine is still supported by law. Kate McGurn Centellas, an anthropologist at the University of Mississippi who studies traditional medicine, says that when long-term cultural practices conflict with wildlife conservation to some extent, the latter often compromises. Rodrigo Herrera, legal evaluator of the British Ministry of Environment and Waters General Council on Biodiversity and Conservation Areas, said there had been no record of arrests related to the killing or trading of bats so far.
The Bolivian government said it had no official record of bat killings. The only relevant report was an incident in La Paz in 2015, when 22 bats of different species were sold for medicinal purposes and confiscated. All bats involved later died.
The Power of Bat Blood
The idea that bat blood can help treat epilepsy is hard to prove or refute. According to Aguirre, if a person with epilepsy drinks bat blood, does not have an epileptic seizure for a period of time, but then relapses, then those who believe in this view may simply understand that the blood potency must have faded. This means that he needs to drink fresh bat blood again.
This practice has become almost ceremonial, and the origin of bat bloods medicinal power is unclear. Bolivians have a profound cultural heritage in traditional medicine, which includes animal products and herbs. For example, in order to bring good luck to families or scientific laboratories, dry camel embryos may be burned and their ashes buried under buildings, Sentras said. Sentras points out that blood is also seen as a powerful vitality. If consumed, it can be supplemented in some way.
Sentras also said that for bats, their value probably comes from the fact that they are considered to be powerful creatures with unique characteristics. Bats can fly, but they are mammals, not birds, she explained. They are not considered to be entirely suitable for any category, so this may be the source of their magical medical efficacy.
Usually, Aguirre says, bats are caught alive, their heads cut off and their blood drained. However, if the bat is dead, the second option is to fry it with fur and soak it in alcohol in a cloth bag for future use. Sentras did not witness the two ceremonies, but said they appeared to be in line with other similar Bolivian practices. For example, Sentras has witnessed Bolivians soak snakes in alcohol and then drink them. She says locals believe the mixture can increase masculinity, stamina or fertility in men.
The biggest bat killer
Aguirres market research shows that the blood-sold bats may include a variety of fruit bats, insect-eating bats (such as rat ear bats) and vampire bats. They are not rare enough to be considered endangered.
Figure 2: Vampire bats, common in Bolivian markets, are stuffed into shoe boxes and sold.
Bat hunters are not the only ones who sell bats in the market. In places where bats live, such as abandoned houses, caves and forests, hunters often find bats, Aguirre said. They often use nets to catch bats, just as they used to catch butterflies. Then they pack bats in bags or boxes and ship them to the city market for sale.
Rodrigo A. Medellin, co-chair of the IUCN Bat Expert Group, which tracks the status of bat species, said that it was terrible for bats in Bolivia, but killing them to get their blood was far from the most serious threat. Medellin stressed: The greatest threat remains habitat destruction and disturbance. Compared with the mortality rate caused by habitat change and habitat destruction, the sale of 3,000 bats per month is nothing at all.
Any reduction in the number of bats can cause damage to ecosystems. For example, this can lead to the disappearance of key plant pollinators and insecticides. In addition, hunting bats can also bring danger to humans. Jonathan Towner, a disease ecologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said: Insect-eating bats are very good at vector control. They eat mosquitoes and other arthropods, and these animals carry parasites such as disease or malaria, and they can also infect humans. Toner points out that the fewer bats There are, the more bacteria there will be, which may increase peoples chances of getting yellow fever, Zhaika virus or malaria.
People who regularly contact bats or drink bat blood also face direct health risks. According to virologist, veterinarian and bat expert Brian Bird of the University of California, the biggest concern is rabies. When an infected bat is in a tense situation, such as squeezing into a shoe box with other bats, it may tear more severely than usual, leading to the spread of rabies.
Gerald Carter, an explorer at National Geographic and a vampire bat expert at Ohio State University, said that vampire bats, which exist only in Latin America, are the best vectors of rabies. These bats suck blood, and rabies spreads through bites, which causes the virus to spread from infected bats to animals it bites.
For people who drink bat blood, the risk of rabies is lower because the virus is most common in tissues such as saliva and brain, rather than in other body fluids. However, Toner said that in the original blood of bats, there may be other pathogens, perhaps new pathogens. He adds that if bats die of their own, it should also cause concern, because dead or sick bats are more likely to carry pathogens.
There is no official record of a link between drinking bat blood and Bolivian illness. But Bird and other public health experts say this may be just a lack of monitoring. When you kill and drink the blood of these animals, you expose yourself to known and potential pathogens, he warned.
Bats, in particular, have recently been shown to be associated with emerging viruses that have serious consequences for humans, such as Ebola, SARS, and Marburg, Ebolas close relatives. In each case, pathogens are transmitted across borders from their natural hosts (animals) to humans, who have rarely been exposed to them before, and thus have low immune protection against them, making the virus outbreak even more intense.
The epidemic is really caused by these rarespillovers(i.e., the cross-border transmission of viruses from animals to humans). Although we know that spillovers are rare, only those who engage in high-risk activities, such as eating jungle meat, are more likely to have unusual spillovers.
Source: Liable Editor of Netease Scientist: Qiao Junyi_NBJ11279