The baobab’s fruit, seeds and leaves have been used for millennia across Africa for food, oil and bark.
More recently, the powder has found its way in European and American health stores as a super food.
Science has shown that the powder is rich in micronutrients, vitamins and polyphenols—all of which are great for boosting ones’ immunity. The baobab oil is now a sought after product because of its anti-aging properties.
And here is the catch: The flowers of the baobab tree are pollinated primarily by bats. The very animal suspected of potentially carrying the deadly corona virus (still to be scientifically proven). And this is not the only tree that bats depend on but entire forest landscapes where they thrive, feed and breed.
These same bats have recently been subject of intensive research by Kenyan scientists from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology.
They are exploring the nexus between bat migrations, roosting spots and viral diseases. Using microchips, they have tracked bats migrating from Kenya to Zambia and further into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On their way back, the bats made pit stops in parts of Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda before returning to Kenya. And throughout these extensive travels—a mean migratory distance of 860 kilometers—the researchers noticed a pattern: Bats were coming closer to humans than ever before.
Many bats have found their way to our settlements, from roosting in Nairobi’s buildings to Mombasa’s trees. They are not moving in because they like us, but because we have destroyed their homes—the forests in which they forage, breed, and raise their young. And there may be a price to pay for this close proximity.
For just as the virus that causes Covid-19 is believed to have originated in a bat, these bats, too, are reservoirs of virus, including coronavirus, which fall with their droppings onto the ground.
There is only one reasonable solution to protect human health from potential new infectious transmitted by these bats: Restoration of the forest areas they called home.
In November 2017, Mombasa witnessed a strange phenomenon: The local recreational park, Uhuru Garden, was overtaken by at least 3,000 roosting bats. The arrival of these mammalian guests did not happen within a single day but over time.
Deforestation in the forest landscapes such as the Sacred Kaya Forests and others around Mombasa, Malindi and Kilifi, drove these animals closer to human settlements.
Coincidentally, as the bats made a feast of the fruits in Mombasa’s Uhuru Garden, a group of Kenyan and Chinese scientists were busy at work trying to understand them.
Their paper, published in 2017, raised alarms, documenting the potentially deadly cocktail of viruses carried by these bats, and their presence. Bats do immense good as they crisscross Africa.
In their search for food, fruit bats pollinate the very foods that find their way to our plates: mango, banana, guava, cashew and more. As they eat away at the fruits, bats also act as seed dispersers for many other plants making vital contribution to forest regeneration.
In addition to fruit, these bats dine insects (although other bat species are more voracious insect eaters).
But as the fear of disease rises, it is easy to lose sight of this good, and blame the bats, rather than our own destruction of their forest homes.
According to conservationists, the current deforestation rates across Africa are four times the global rates resulting in approximate annual forest loss of about 40,000 square kilometres per year. Sadly, Africa’s problems due to anthropogenic degradation are further compounded by climate change.
March 21 was the International Day of Forests under the theme Forests and Biodiversity: Too Precious to lose. Amid the rising panic of Covid-19, it passed like a whisper.
Coronavirus gives us another reason to rethink how we should manage our forests sustainably.
In Africa, at least, we now have clear evidence that deforestation is closing the “social distance” between bats and people. And that is dangerous.
Although some may react to this situation by wanting to eradicate bats, that would be a mistake. As seen above, they play a vital role in pollinating our fruit and controlling insect pests.
Dr Musonda Mumba is the chair of Global Partnership for Forest and Landscape Restoration and Head of UNEP’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit.