On a narrow interior road diverting from the Salem-Kalrayan hills road that snakes up to Agraharam Natar Mangamalam village (about 17 km from Salem), a family of six are performing a pooja on Thursday at a small temple under the shade of a tamarind grove on the village outskirts, where large-sized fruit bat roost by the hundreds.
The family was conducting rituals with newly printed wedding invitation cards to invoke blessings from their family deity, Periyandichi Amman.
Blissfully unaware of the deadly Nipah (NiV) virus which has taken away 11 lives in Kerala, the entire family spent half a day in the grove exposing themselves dangerously to the spillage of possible pathogenic excretions from the bats that hang precariously on the branches.
Although the Kerala government has recently confirmed that bats were not sources of the Nipah virus, they indeed are possible carriers of the virus.
â€śMy parents used to encourage us to enjoy more of sparklers and other mild fireworks instead of crackers, so that the bats inhabiting the trees in our village may not be disturbed,â€ť says 38-year-old Jayalakshmi. â€śThis has been the practice here for many years and right from my childhood I have not violated this norm,â€ť says her brother Ilango.
Passersby stop their bikes or cycles and rest under the shade of the grove. None whom we talked to showed awareness that the bats were possible reservoirs of the Nipah virus. The villagers considered the bats to be sacred and of good omen and that was the reason they did not scare away the creatures by bursting crackers. "Even weddings and temple festivals aren't noisy affairs here,â€ť they say.
Hardly three hundred feet away from the grove, a few residents living in huts give us a different picture. While not being aware of the danger posed by bats, the hut dwellers say that people here hunt these bats for meat. But the bat poachers would dare not hunt them in the grove, lest they are objected by the villagers and be pulled up by the forest department. "They hunt them down when they fly. Rarely the bats do stray into the villages also," says Velliammal, aged about eighty, sitting out on a rope woven cot. She was aware that bat hunting was illegal, but not of the health hazard posed by them.
The army of bats in the village, we are told, take nocturnal flights for foraging into the nearby Sheveroyon hills, Arunoothumalai and Jaruggu hills and return to their grove abode in the morning.
In Metala and Namagripet near Rasipuram in Namakkal district also, people refrain from bursting crackers for the same reason. Here the bats commute to Kolli hills and Bodhamalai hillocks and return to their comfort zones. At Thammampatti too, which is proximate to Pachamalai hills, a similar practice is prevalent. At Danishpet behind Yercaud, Lokur and Palakode in Dharmapuri district, bats have colonized the large old trees outside the forests.
The trees in Dharmapuri Forest Range Office are colonized by hundreds of large sized brown bats. These tree dwelling bats are the fruit eating bats (Pteropus vampyrus) that are considered to be the major carriers of Nipha virus.
Health department to step in
"We have just now started to brief the second level officials and the tertiary level health workers at the block level. It is likely that the officials themselves are unaware of the existence of bat colonies near human habitations,â€ť said an Assistant Director of Panchayats in one the above districts.
The collectors in these districts have started to convene meetings with first line officials in Revenue, Health and Rural Development Departments and have finalized preventive measures. At the government-run Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital, Salem, which will be the referral hospital for the four districts, an isolation ward has been created for possible Nipah vicitims.
Nurses, paramedics and health workers in rural areas have been briefed about WHO protocols in protecting themselves from infections from the virus carrier - the patient. The heads of the Department of Health Services and Medical Service have briefed the doctors about the WHO protocols in identifying the syndrome, opening surveillance registers and about epidemiological investigations.
Animal Husbandry Department has also been told to monitor piggeries and pig sickness. The system has been put on high alert mode. With the virus being reported as contained within Kerala, the accent of public health action in Tamil Nadu is placed on prevention.
Collectors have issued awareness statements to the public, communicating the dangers of consuming bat bitten fruits, handpicked fallen fruits, palm sap which is a likely to be tasted by fruit bats, preventive steps against infections through pigs and human-to-human transmission.
"In the event of local infections getting reported or in the event of outbreak of epidemic, disinfecting or culling of bats is not on the policy agenda as of now," says a senior official in the Zoonotic Diseases Control Lab in Hosur requesting anonymity.
Conservationists are of the strong view that superstition in one way helps conservation. The presence of a diversity of bat species is indicative of better environmental health. This is because bats are on the top of the food chain. Insectivorous bats are primary predators of night-flying insects, and many very damaging pests.
Noted chiropterologist Bhargavi Srinivasulu from Osmania University says that bats are beneficial in maintaining ecological balance. Their foraging involves seed and pollen dispersion and hence are good pollinators and are natural pest controllers. A single bat would consume 3,000 to 4,000 mosquitoes and many other illnesses causing insects.
"It is not right to fix blame on fruit bats for NIPHA virus infection because it has not been confirmed that the victims in Kerala had been infected by a bat or any other animal. Even if the infection was transmitted from an infected bat it is difficult to locate from which population of bats the infection originated because of bat abundance. However, it is important to target awareness communication on people who consider bats as sacred and those who are forced to eat its meat. Wrong handling is a behavior driven by misconceptions which leads to bites and infections," says Bhargavi Srinivasulu.
Publications of Batcon, an organization involved in bats conservation, express the view that the incidence of Nipha virus, rabies and many infectious viruses in bats is a consequence of habitat erosion and food resource fragmentation. As a consequence of heightened biotic activity even in very deep forest and hill environment, bats are driven closer to human habitats. An increased viral load in bats is an inevitable outcome as they become malnourished when forced to live in unnatural habitats. Bat handling awareness is hence crucial in health campaigns.