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Bat man Dr Mahesh Gaikwad has been fielding calls from all over Maharashtra about bats over the past few weeks. He has received over 150 calls from different parts of the state like Nagar, Chandrapur, Sinnar, Solapur, Kolhapur, Sangli, and Mangalveda.
Amidst a general fear that local bats cause COVID-19, these calls inform him of the cutting of the fruit trees or the spraying of chemicals in buildings where they roost.
Very patiently, he has explained to all callers that the bats which might have sparked COVID-19 are not even found in India. He adds gravely, “Remember, bats didn’t spread the coronavirus, humans did.”
Dr Gaikwad observed this spike in fear and violent action after news of a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found the bat coronavirus (BtCoV) in two bat species from Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu. The first author of the study has explicitly shared that this “bat coronavirus has no relation with SARS-CoV-2 responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Despite this clarity in the study, the fear has spread. “This research shouldn’t have been made public right now. It has caused panic among people,” he says.
Most recently, but not necessarily connected to the ICMR research, news surfaced of how at least 150 bats were killed in Rajasthan. Dr Gaikwad also found from his sources that people poisoned bats, shut caves, and washed temples. A fallout of this, he says, was that people also attacked trees.
An expert in the flying mammals
Over the last eight years of researching the flying mammal, Dr Gaikwad has named six new bat species. One of the species he found at the base of waterfalls in Mahabaleshwar town was named Myotis montivagus.
Moreover, the 40-year-old from Baramati has caught and handled almost 7,000 bats and dissected about 1,000 for his research. Through his work, he has developed a taxonomic key for 48 bat species of Maharashtra, which gives the standard formula for identification and studying of bats in the state. Two of the five books he has written are about bats–Aapli Vatvaghula (Our Bats) and Timirdoot (creatures that fly in the night).
In all this time, it was only once that he fell ill after spending time in a bat cave. “But that was because I had not taken the required precautions. I was cured by a traditional healer,” he shares.
Even before the pandemic, bats were portrayed in a bad light by myths and their presence in films around ‘haunted’ houses. But the bigger threat to bats is the rapid changes in and shrinking of their habitats.
As their habitats shrink, their fight for survival increases, causing them to come closer to humans and human settlements in their simple search for food and shelter, explains Dr Gaikwad. When a bat is stressed, it “sheds” the virus, leading to a “zoonotic spillover”, which might happen in situations like the wet markets of China.
He adds that these conditions will make humans susceptible to the viruses that bats carry.
Bats are thrice as immune to diseases as humans. They have 200-250 heartbeats per minute, and when they warm up, the heart rate increases to 1,000 per minute. When they fly, their peak body temperature is 42 degrees Celsius, much like a fever which kills most pathogens, he informs.
“If they are simply allowed to live in their habitat, they won’t come among humans, and there won’t be a continued spread of viruses,” the concerned researcher says.
Dr Gaikwad has found that Pune district is home to 321 bat colonies, some in tree clusters, some in caves, and some in buildings too. Though there is no official population count, he has also observed that some species of bats have disappeared from Pune. The bat species Myotis Peshwa was found here, but isn’t seen here any more, he says. It fed on freshwater insects, but as Pune’s rivers turned into sewage carriers, there were no more insects and no more Myotis Peshwa.
There used to be bats in Pune’s caves too, but these have disappeared because of human activities in caves like tyre burning. There are still some caves, but Dr Gaikwad avoids naming them lest people go looking for them!
Some bat species would feed on the sap from different trees of the palm species in Hadapsar area in Pune. But these trees were chopped.
Such losses have forced some bat species to shift to grapes, which caused significant losses to farmers. The farmers covered their grape crop with fishing nets, which would trap and kill the bats. Dr Gaikwad conducted a project where the farmers shifted from nets to simple saris as covers. It is little measures like these that are saving lives, he says.
He conducts such activities through his Pune-based NGO Nisarg Jaagar Pratishthan, which primarily teaches children to read nature and spread awareness among people. This has led him to work at the grassroots level rather than continuing as an academician.
Giving bats their space is crucial not just to avoid illnesses. They play an essential role in pollination, seed transmission, and insect control. About 80 per cent of the 1,400 bats species are insectivorous, while the remaining eat fruit.
Once they leave their colonies for the hunting ground at dusk, which can be up to 40 km away, they eat through the night. Some species can eat up to 2,000 mosquitoes in a single night. In some parts of Maharashtra, bat dung is used as a fertiliser, as it is rich in nitrogen. They also eat mice, frogs, and other big insects. Agriculture would not be possible without bats, says Dr Gaikwad. They are simply not popular because they are nocturnal, he rues.
Cutting trees will make matters worse, for bats and humans. Bats roost on big old trees like banyan, fig, peepal, and tamarind, among others. They choose trees which are closer to water, as they need to maintain their body temperature. Dehydration would cause their wings to dry, causing them to fall off the trees from which they hang. Thus it is also essential to save water bodies.
A few days ago, Meghmala Kadam, a pharmaceuticals distributor in Satara, observed a group of people bursting crackers and creating a ruckus to chase away bats in the trees. She quickly called Dr Gaikwad to understand if bats were even a real threat. He explained their importance and how crucial they are for pollination and agriculture. Immediately, she asked the group to stop.
This was but one example of the hundreds of queries that Dr Gaikwad has clarified over the past month. That is the power of a single phone call, and the power of a responsive, alert, and patient ‘Bat Man’.
(Written by Shatakshi Gawade and Edited by Shruti Singhal)