Bats are still on the menu and for sale at markets in Indonesia, despite their link to COVID-19

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  • Bats remain on sale in Indonesian wet markets, despite links to COVID-19.
  • The virus is thought to have come from bats via another animal.
  • The wet market in Wuhan, China, was closed months ago, and experts worry about the transmission risks at poorly regulated markets.
  • Around three-quarters of all newly identified viruses in humans have made the jump from animals.

In a wild animal market in Indonesia's North Sulawesi province, bats are still on the menu.

Many of them are caught by hunters in forests using nets and hooks. Once at the market, their wings are removed, their fur scorched off using a blow torch, and they're then skewered ready for cooking.

In many places where bats are a delicacy, they've been off the menu in recent months.

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The link between bushmeat and the potential for the transfer of viruses has turned up the heat on this rogue trade.

An animal market in Wuhan is where it's believed COVID-19 first made the leap from animal to human.

Indonesia's Langowan market is well known for its exotic meats like snake, lizard, rats, and wild boar.

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"Buyers were afraid to eat bat meat. But gradually, because they think that we have a different way of cooking, they are not afraid of it anymore," manager Yani Tulangow told Business Insider Today. "Recently trade is back to normal."

Tulangow told us that there are no controls over the bat meat sold at the market. And he has no plans to shut down any of the wild animal trade.

But according to experts, a market where different species are brought together and butchered in unhygienic surroundings is the ideal environment for a spillover event to occur.

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"It is likely what is going on in Wuhan will be occurring in Indonesia," Raden Wasito, professor of veterinary medicine at Gadjah Mada University said from his laboratory in Jakarta.

"The Wuhan situation where the coronavirus became pandemic, it's almost similar to what is going on in Indonesia where there are so many wild animal markets. All of those things can create a reservoir for many kinds of diseases."

Bats are a prime suspect for transfering coronaviruses to humans.

Bats are still on the menu and for sale at markets in Indonesia, despite their link to COVID-19
Bat meat is a popular delicacy at Indonesian wet markets.BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images

Disease transfers from animals to people, known as zoonoses, are not confined to so-called "wet" markets. They can happen in any setting where humans mix with animals - be they pets or livestock.

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"Spillovers are common, they are happening all the time," Dave Redding, a senior researcher at the the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research at University College London, told Business Insider Today.

"People get illnesses from livestock all over the world. That's happening every single day, tens, if not hundreds of times."

"And I don't think these wet markets are going to have the same impact as all of the other contacts that are going on. And so it may be a really nice thing to say, we can just get rid of wet markets and it will solve the problem. It won't solve the problem."

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Investigators from the World Health Organization are still working to determine the exact origins of COVID-19.

Bats are a prime suspect, perhaps transferring the virus to people by way of another animal host.

"There are multiple coronaviruses known, some of which are closely related to SARS, some of which are closely related to COVID," Kris Murray, senior lecturer in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London, said. "And it does look like this particular particular group of bats is a sort of reservoir, the animal reservoir, for these groups of coronaviruses."

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There are over 1,000 species of bat. Living in tight colonies but able to travel large distances, they are effective at not only hosting, but transfering pathogens.

But even if bats are to blame this time, Murray is keen to point out the chances of a new infectious disease passing from a bat, or any animal, to a human - and then going on to become a lethal pandemic - is still tiny.

"We have had a very long history of exposure to wildlife and we've had every opportunity in the last 100 years of massive environmental destruction for so many of these things to have spilled out from wildlife into people," he said.

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"What's surprising to me is that not more of this stuff is happening. It can happen, but the fact that we only have 200 or 250 viruses from all species that have made their way into the human population that we know about given all of the technology that we have to detect these viruses, to me says that this process is so rare."

Rare, yet in the case of COVID-19, a reality.

Many experts fear for the future of bats and other wild animals hunted for their meat.

Bats are still on the menu and for sale at markets in Indonesia, despite their link to COVID-19
A group of giant fruit bats that are hung on trees during the day in Aceh Utara, Indonesia.Fachrul Reza/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In North Sulawesi, black and yellow flying foxes, some with a wingspan of more than a meter, gorge themselves on fruit, pollen, and nectar.

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Here they are hunted as pests, but also for their meat.

Herman Buhel of the Gorontalo region, 350 kilometers west of Langowan, hunts bats among the mangrove forests of Ponelo island.

"I use nylon, rope, and wood. I wait for the bat to pass and get caught in the hook. The hook is attached to the nylon," he told us.

The Sulawesi fruit bat is classified as vulnerable because of overhunting, according to the IUCN Red List of endangered species.

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And with human populations swelling and habitats under threat from urbanization and palm plantations, many fear for the future of not just bats, but all wild animals hunted for their meat or sold to smugglers of exotic species.

"There are several places selling animals that I never imagined could be sold," said Annisa Devi Rachmawati, a vet working at the Tasikoki Animal Rescue Center in North Sulawesi.

"There must be attention from the government and from institutions to monitor how to reduce this pattern like the animal trade, and the consumption of animal meat and other kinds."

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Breaking the habit of eating bat meat will be difficult.

Bat meat is a prized delicacy in this part of Indonesia, saved for special occasions and public holidays.

At Langowan market, a kilogram sells for the equivalent of around $3.

"We have always eaten this, and no one has been infected with the corona," resident Kiki Rondonuwu said as he bought several bats in the market.

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"It's so delicious," says local butcher Jane Wungkara. "We have eaten it since we were children."

Breaking habits of a lifetime will be hard. And it's feared that banning the sale of bat meat in markets would only drive the trade underground.

Cooking a traditional bat meat curry involves boiling the meat before mixing in coconut milk and plenty of spices.

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While the bat remains the villain in a still-unfolding global drama, here at least, it is a dish to be savored.

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