By Truth Muller, Contributing Author for Bat World Sanctuary
On June 6, 2017, NPR published a YouTube Video entitled “Should We Wipe Out Vampire Bats?” to their science channel, Skunk Bear. The video says that in Latin America, “Vampire bats are ruining livelihoods and lives. They prey on pigs, on calves, on children, and sometimes, sick bats carry rabies in their saliva.” Outbreaks of rabies are killing dozens of people and costing the region over 30 million dollars in dying livestock every year. Due to this, the ranchers of the region are petitioning their governments to exterminate the entire species. The video’s intention was to investigate the validity of this idea. However, the video does not answer questions, it raises them – and it also raises fears.
First of all, I cannot stress this point enough: Less than one tenth of 1% of all bats in the entire world ever get rabies. You’d have a better chance of getting rabies from a stray dog. So to suggest we exterminate all vampire bats because perhaps one in one thousand carry rabies is sickening. By this same logic, does that mean we should exterminate all domesticated dogs, cats, raccoons, and foxes, too, on the chance they may have rabies? All are potential carriers of the disease. There is also a serious assumption made here: that the bats are in any condition to feed once they contract rabies. Unlike a “mad dog”, a bat sick with rabies becomes not aggressive but sluggish, stops flying and dies within days of contracting the disease.
Tragically, attempting to exterminate bats is nothing new, and has been practiced in Latin America since the 1960’s. As stated in the NPR video, vampire bats are currently captured and poisoned by “spreading a toxic paste on the back of a bat, and when the bat returns to its roost the poison spreads through the whole colony”. The video also says that this is not working, and may actually increase the spread of rabies (how this can happen is not explained). According to The Secret Lives of Bats (Tuttle, Merlin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt : NY, 2015) another common practice, not mentioned in the video, is the use of flamethrowers to exterminate bats, and the dynamiting of bat caves. Beyond ethics, the huge problem here is that the exterminators have little to no formal training in identifying a Vampire Bat. In Latin America, the colloquial word for bat translates to “vampire”. As only three of the 1,339 species of bats are actually vampires, there are hundreds of species, including insect and fruit-eating bats, who also die during these campaigns. To start an “exterminate-to-extinction” campaign in one of the most biodiverse bat habitats on Earth could spell disaster for its ecosystem, and human health. To kill any amount of insect eating bats, many of which look to the untrained eye very similar to a vampire (small and brown) would be potentially catastrophic, due to the fact that the home of the Common Vampire is also the home of the Zika Virus. The host of the video also states that “as far as we know, [Vampire Bats] don’t play any important role. The jungle would be just fine without them”. That is an extremely irresponsible statement, because “as far as we know” is not far at all. We have no idea what purpose these bats serve, but they would have gone extinct millions of years ago, or never evolved at all, if they did not serve some purpose.
So what’s the solution? The only two that the video offers are exterminating all the vampires, or a “hugely expensive vaccination program – you’d have to [vaccinate] all the people, cows, pigs, even the bats”. Another mistake: You would not need to vaccinate the bats – that would be akin to vaccinating mosquitoes for malaria, unnecessary and impractical. There is a third solution, one which virtually stopped malaria in its tracks in the same country the video was filmed: Panama. During the construction of the Panama Canal, mosquito netting was instrumental in saving lives and staving off the deadly disease. Instead of asking the government to kill things, why not petition for mosquito netting or screens on the rancher’s homes? A bat cannot bite what it cannot reach. Lastly, besides an interview with a few of the ranchers, no scientific proof is offered ANYWHERE in the video or the accompanying article, connecting vampires and these rabies outbreaks. Where is the proof? The ranchers stated only that vampires were biting their animals (and in some cases, some children who “lived over by the cows for a while”), but not that anyone or anything had died or been infected on their ranch. The video never answers its own question, “Should We Wipe Out Vampire Bats?”. Based on the erroneous statements, factual holes and lack of hard evidence throughout the video, Buddies for Bats has to say, “no”. Before we start killing off an entire species, let’s get all our facts straight, and think hard on the role these animals do play in their ecosystem, and our planet’s.
So which bat above is the vampire bat? Answer: E
Here are the other species pictured: A: Great Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus lituratus) B: Little Yellow-shouldered Bat (Sturnira lilium) C: Common Big-eared Bat (Micronycteris microtis) D: Stripe-headed Round-eared Bat (Tonatia saurophila) E: White-winged Vampire Bat (Diaemus youngi) F: Thomas's Nectar Bat (Hsunycteris thomasi) G: Black Flying Fox (Pteropus alecto) H: Spectacled Flying Fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) and I: Hammer-headed Fruit Bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus).
Photo Credits: A and B are courtesy of RLM Novaes (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil), C-F are courtesy of A Pol (Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), G and H are courtesy of A Breed (Animal and Plant Health Agency, Addlestone, Surrey, United Kingdom) and I is courtesy of Jakob Fahr (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany). Photographers are the copyright holders of the images.