Vampire bats in a zoo (Photo credit: © belizar - Fotolia)

Cable news has been howling over the possibility that the dog owned by a Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for a patient might be infected with the disease, a possibility we reported back in September.

But although pet dogs could play a role in spreading the disease, it's bats and other wild creatures who are more likely to have been the source of the latest outbreak.

You can't blame the bats though. It's the humans who hunt and eat bats and other "bushmeat" who actually provide the pathway for the virus to move from one species to another.

Batty for bushmeat

Why would anyone eat bats? Good question and one that a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)  set out to answer. They interviewed nearly 600 people in southern Ghana to find out what drives the popularity of "bushmeat" -- a term loosely applied to wild meat.

Knowing who eats bushmeat and why, as well as how they perceive the risks, is important for informing both disease and conservation management plans, said Cambridge professor Olivier Restif, who said the Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat is widely hunted and eaten in Ghana even though it carries a risk of infection with "zoonotic" pathogens – diseases transmitted from animal to man.

Hunting, butchering and consuming wild animals for food can potentially transmit these infections through bites, scratches, bodily fluids, tissue and excrement, Restif and his colleagues said.

Bats in particular appear to host more zoonotic viruses per species than any other group of mammals, yet very little is known about how humans and bats interact, how people perceive bats and their accompanying disease risk, or who is most at risk.

Smoked bat

The researchers found that hunters used a variety of means to capture bats, including shooting, netting and scavenging, and that all of the hunters reported handling live bats, coming into contact with bat blood and getting scratched or bitten. None of the hunters reported using protective measures, such as gloves.

Scavenged bats were collected alive, usually when a branch broke and bats fell to the ground, but this too carried risks: four interviewees explained how people would fight over the bats when a large branch fell, sometimes even lying down on top of bats to prevent others from taking them, often sustaining bites and scratches.

The bats were prepared and cooked in a number of ways, the most common methods being to smoke the bats before preparing food and using the bats in soup. At odds with reports from other countries, the survey in South East Ghana revealed few uses of bat bushmeat associated with traditional beliefs or medical practices.

In Ghana, bat bushmeat seems to function as both subsistence and luxury food. The large number of hunters who hunt for themselves or who keep some of their catch suggests that bats provide a readily available source of animal protein. At the same time, high taste ratings among consumers and relatively high prices suggest that bat meat is seen as a "luxury food" in Ghana.

More information is available online

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