A couple of weeks ago, Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist at the Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, expressed concern on Facebook about a man in Sukhothai who hunted bats for consumption and also for sale.
Thai newspapers referred to the man as "the bat hunter", who hunts bats, field rats, cobras and beehives for a living. He catches several kilogrammes of bats a day, cooks them for his own use, and also sells them to other people in the area for 100 baht per kilo. The news reported that local people like to cook bats with hot curry or steam them and dip them with seafood sauce. Some people believe that bat meat can boost their energy. However, before eating, the bat hunter suggested that bats should be well cooked and people should avoid touching them directly while cooking.
Dr Rungsrit, who is also an environmentalist, worried that the news would encourage readers to eat bat meat for medicinal and other health-related purposes. He wrote on Facebook: "After reading the news that encouraged people to eat bats, I felt deeply worried. During the past three years, the world was on pause; the economy collapsed, but in spite of all this, a group of Thai people still have not learned from this experience. Humans should never consume bats and some other species of wild animals. There are approximately 10,000 viruses in wild animals that can transmit to humans. These viruses can cause more pandemics."
Dr Rungsrit also hoped the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and the Department of Disease Control would follow up and deal with this bat-eating issue seriously.
Dr Rungsrit's concern is understandable. I believe that most people do not want to go through another pandemic. However, some netizens felt sorry for the bat hunter since he seems impoverished and has to make a living from hunting bats and other small animals. I believe that poverty is the main reason why this man believes he has to eat and sell bats. He probably also has no idea that trapping and eating bats (and cobras) violates the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act. The bat hunter can be imprisoned for up to four years and fined up to 40,000 baht. It is important for authorities to inform him and local people about this legislation and help them find other meat sources and jobs, so that they don't violate the law and potentially ruin their health.
The hollow of a tree in Nakhon Si Thammarat Dr. Manoon Leechawengwongs FC Facebook
Although there are laws that protect wildlife, it is a well-known fact in Thailand these are not strictly enforced. Some people do not take the law seriously, especially when they believe that bat meat and other wild animal meat is good for them. Also, many people do not believe that eating bats caused the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people think the coronavirus is a man-made virus that leaked from a laboratory, so consuming bat meat shouldn't present a problem for them.
Whether eating bat caused the pandemic or not, consumers of bat meat can still get very sick. Veterinarian Kaset Sutasha, of Kasetsart University, told Thai PBS that bats carry many viruses that can be transmitted to humans and cause illness. Kaset noted that cooks could inhale virus particles while preparing the meat. According to Dr Rungsrit and Kaset, bat meat has no special healing properties as some people suggest. Instead of becoming stronger, people who eat bat meat may get sick and die.
Recently, Dr Manoon Leechawengwongs, a pulmonologist at Vichaiyut Hospital, warned through his Facebook fanpage that people should not step inside hollows of the cha muang trees found in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. These tree hollows are often home to the lesser false vampire bat. Several people fell ill recently after stepping inside the hollows, with symptoms including coughing spells, weakness and fatigue. They eventually were diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a potentially life-threatening lung infection caused by breathing in spores of a fungus often found in bird and bat droppings. The pulmonologist recommended that people trekking inside caves or tree hollows should wear surgical masks.
This news does not mean bats are evil, but people should understand the bats' nature and avoid any physical contact. Kaset said bats serve the important function of helping to pollinate many fruits and flowers, noting that nearly all mangoes in Bangkla, Chachoengsao, are pollinated by bats. Therefore, people should let bats be so that both species can benefit from a balanced ecosystem.
Suwitcha Chaiyong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Bats Dr. Manoon Leechawengwongs FC Facebook