The case of the flying foxes

June 21, 2020

Already struggling to deal with a locust attack, farmers in south Punjab now also worry about the orchards being ravaged by large bats

Recently, groups of flying foxes or fruit bats, a genus of mega-bats which are among the largest bats in the world swept across orchards in Multan, destroying first lychee and mango orchards on Bosan Road, and later premature mangoes making their way to Nawabpur, Durana Langana and a number of villages located along the Chenab River. Nobody could predict their arrival. Their presence is unusual because the mammal belongs originally to tropics and subtropics of Asia, Australia, East Africa, and some islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

They have larger eyes and a stronger sense of smell than the smaller species, but smaller ears because they don’t echolocate. These creatures have a wingspan of more than 4-5 feet and weigh 2.5 to 3.5 kilogram.

Given the possibility that the coronavirus likely spread due to a zoonotic virus spreading from a bat to another animal and then to humans, the arrival of mega-bats has led to paranoia among those living in these environs.

Research by Yi Fan, Zheng Li Shi and Peng Zhou titled Bat Coronaviruses in China traced the origins of agents of SARS, MERS and SADS to bats. The research is available at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information and aims to “summarize the current knowledge on viral diversity, reservoir hosts, and the geographical distributions of bat coronaviruses in China”. It aims to minimise risks and spread of cross-species viral infection by identifying early indicators.

Epidemical investigations have found a strong relationship between bat mammals and host viruses as the bats harbour a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than other mammalian orders. However, knowledge about the spread and origin of coronavirus is still evolving as it is a rapidly changing situation. There are experts who, whilst observing a similar situation in Australia where these mammals have flocked to urban spaces, have held that the chance of transmission remains low. However, they warn that people should avoid close contact with these bats as a precautionary measure.

Those living in villages close to and around Multan say that no remedial action has been taken by the government to save their orchards from the attack of the bats. Nor were they warned by the authorities to avoid close contact with the creatures for reasons of health and safety.

“How can we kill bats, they are creatures of God?”, says Jalal who works at a mango orchard. In the vicinity, mega-bats are seen clinging to tree branches.

Those living in villages around Multan say that no remedial action has been taken by the government to save their orchards from the attack of the bats.

Malik Mujahid Raza Kalro owns a mango orchard spread over 32 acres on Nawabpur Road. Most of the the green mango orchards in the area belong to the Kalro clan of landholders. He says he has tried to save his mango orchards from the mega-bat attack but has failed. He says the mega-bats attack has caused an unbearable loss to him. “Previously I auctioned my premature mango orchard this year and was offered Rs 5.1 million. Since the mega-bat attack, the situation has changed, and I have been offered just Rs 0.8 million.”

The lower amount, he says, cannot even meet the out-of-pocket expenses. Malik fears if the mammals continue to attack the mango orchards, they will cause a huge loss in terms of decline in the fruit yield this year.

These village were already struggling to deal with a terrible locust attack. Now they face another critical threat as mega-bats ravage orchards in the Nawabpur Road area, which is known for its delicious mangoes.

Mega-bats were earlier observed in parts of Sindh near Sukkur in 2015.

“The matter has been brought to the notice of Agriculture Department,” says Naveed Asmat Kahloon, the assistant director in charge of agriculture information.

He says teams of Agriculture Department will visit the affected areas to find a remedy. He also says the Wildlife Department is responsible for elimination of bats.

The writer is bureau chief of The News in Multan. He may be reached at [email protected]

The case of the flying foxes: Farmers in south Punjab worry about orchards being ravaged by large bats