Australians want to sell fruit bats
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:
KUALA LUMPUR––Nipah virus
antibodies have been found in fruit bats in
Perak, Malaysia, confirming suspicion that
the deadly disease spread from bats to pigs
and then to people.
Nipah virus killed at least 108
Malaysians in the first six months of 1999,
all of whom lived or worked on pig farms.
More than a million pigs were slaughtered to
contain the disease, causing economic hardship
to about 300,000 people.
It is still premature to name fruit
bats as the natural hosts of the Nipah disease,
cautioned Australian Animal Research
Institute veterinary epidemiologist Hume
Field, who announced the discovery of the
antibodies in fruit bats on July 21.
Field said more tests were needed
to determine whether fruit bats were the primary
“We tested fruit bats here in
Malaysia because in Australia, the similar
Hendra virus originated from fruit bats,”
Field told reporters. The Hendra virus was
discovered after it killed 15 horses and three
humans who worked with horses in 1994.
Back in Melbourne, Australia,
however, the Rural Industries Research and
Development Corporation evidently didn’t
take note. Just five days after Field’s
announcement, RIRDC suggested exporting
flying foxes, the largest fruit bat species,
from Australia to parts of Southeast Asia
where fruit bats are commonly eaten.
“The flying fox industry has enormous
potential, particularly in the export
market,” RIRDC spokespersons emphasized.
“Government restrictions remain the biggest
barrier to development of this industry.”
The discovery of the Nipah and
Hendra viruses could increase the Australian
export and foreign import restrictions, which
until now have existed mainly to protect rare
species and prevent the spread of bat rabies.
Why the viruses have only appeared
and spread to livestock and humans in recent
years is still a biological mystery. The Nipah
virus, in particular, spread so fast and so virulently
that experts wonder how it could have
been present in heavily inhabited Malaysia
for long without previously being detected.
One possible clue is that most fruit
bats are highly specialized feeders, which
normally eat just a narrow range of fruits and
don’t tend to come to the ground or come into
much contact with other species who don’t
eat the same things. But much of Malaysia
was ravaged by drought and forest fires in
1997-1998. Some fruit bats may have lost
their primary food source and turned to
ground-fallen orchard fruit and/or over-ripe
market fruit, commonly fed to pigs.