BBC Newsday interviews CIFOR scientist on deforestation, bats and Ebola study

16 Jan 2020

Photo credit: Straw-colored Fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) in Lomé, Togo by Stephen C. Smith. Used under Creative Commons license.

Deforestation may accelerate the spread of the deadly Ebola disease in the rainforests of West and Central Africa by increasing human-bat interactions, a new study in Mammal Review journal shows.

John Fa, a senior associate scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who led the research with scientists at Spain’s University of Malaga (UMA), was interviewed on Wednesday by BBC Newsday‘s Lawrence Pollard.

Listen to the full interview here (scroll to 48:20).

Fruit bats (Pteropodidae) are suspected reservoir hosts for the Ebola virus (EBV), which is often fatal to humans and other primates.

Forested areas cleared to plant fruit tree crops and for agricultural activities can increase the number of people moving to areas where there is a greater food supply for bats, said Fa, who is also a professor of biodiversity and human development at Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University.

This could hypothetically increase the spread of Ebola.

“While heavily forested areas aren’t particularly conducive for dense populations of humans, when areas are opened for agriculture or other purposes, more people are going to be in the area,” he said. “This means the possibility and mechanism for infection is also going to be greater.”

In general, the bats also tend to live in open areas outside the forest canopy.

Named for their dietary preferences, several large fruit bat species proliferate in fragmented rainforests or in agroforestry settings.

Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo is battling the second largest EBV epidemic on record, with more than 2,200 lives lost and 3,300 confirmed infections since the outbreak was declared in August 2018, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We still need to conduct further research, particularly to determine the relative scale of deforestation favoring the expansion of fruit bat populations,” said Jesus Olivero, a professor of biogeography and micro-ecology at UMA, cautioning that current findings do not provide a carte blanche to cull bats.

“As yet, we do not know the level of deforestation that will change the habits of bat communities,” Olivero said. “We need to determine if there is a tipping point beyond which catastrophic effects result.”

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