Where bats are still on the menu, if no longer the best seller

Richard C. Paddock and Dera Menra Sijabat, The New York Times

Posted at May 13 2020 11:51 PM

Where bats are still on the menu, if no longer the best seller 1
A big brown bat collected by researchers in a cave near Ely, Nev., Nov. 5, 2018. Bats are considered the probable source of the coronavirus outbreak spreading from China. It turns out that they may have an immune system that lets them coexist with many disease-causing viruses. Kim Raff/The New York Times/file photo

BANGKOK — Six days a week, the butchers of Tomohon gather at Indonesia’s most notorious market and cut up bats, rats, snakes and lizards that were taken from the wilds of Sulawesi island.

Some of the butchers also slaughter dogs — many of them pets snatched from city streets — by clubbing them to death and burning off their fur with blowtorches.

For years, animal lovers and wildlife activists have urged officials to close the bazaar, boastfully known as the Tomohon Extreme Market. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is putting renewed pressure on the officials to finally take action.

“The market is like a cafeteria for animal pathogens,” said the lead expert for Indonesia’s coronavirus task force, Wiku Adisasmito, who has urged the government to close the country’s wildlife markets. “Consuming wild animals is the same as playing with fire.”

The earliest cluster of coronavirus cases in the global outbreak was linked to a market in Wuhan, China, where live animals were kept close together, creating an opportunity for the virus to jump to humans. The SARS virus, which killed 800 people worldwide, is believed to have originated in bats before spreading to civets in a wildlife market in China, and ultimately infecting people in 2002.

China ordered the closure of all its wildlife markets after the Wuhan outbreak in December. Now Indonesia’s Tomohon market is one of the region’s largest to sell wildlife for food.

Most of the wild animals at Tomohon are slaughtered before they reach the market. It is mainly dogs that are kept alive in cages and killed on the spot for customers who say that they taste better when freshly killed.

“It is like a time bomb,” said Billy Gustafianto Lolowang, manager of the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center in the nearby town of Bitung. “We can only wait until we become the epicenter of a pandemic like Wuhan.”

Local residents believe some animals have medicinal properties, including bats, which are said to cure asthma. In North Sulawesi, the largely Christian province that includes Tomohon, bush meat is such a big part of the local diet that snake and bat meat are often sold in supermarkets.

“Before the virus, bats were the most popular, followed by rats and pythons,” said Roy Nangka, 40, who has worked as a butcher in Tomohon since 1999. “Now people mostly buy the meat of pigs and boars.”

Indonesia, which has the world’s fourth-largest population, was slow to acknowledge the threat of the coronavirus pandemic and lags far behind other nations in testing. It belatedly imposed travel and social distancing restrictions, and the virus has spread to every province.

As of Wednesday, Indonesia had recorded 15,438 cases and 1,028 deaths, the second-highest number of fatalities in East Asia after China. Some officials say many more cases and deaths have gone undetected and unreported.

On Tuesday, a coalition of animal rights groups called Dog Meat Free Indonesia urged the nation’s president, Joko Widodo, to close wildlife markets to prevent the possible emergence of a new pathogen.

“It is shocking to see markets selling wildlife and domesticated animals in full operation,” the group said in a letter to Joko. “If we do not act, the question is not whether another similar pandemic will emerge, but when.”

Any decision to shutter Indonesia’s wildlife markets is the responsibility of local officials, said Indra Exploitasia, director of biodiversity conservation for Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry. She said the ministry had encouraged local officials to close them.

Research shows that bats, rats and snakes “play a role as a reservoir” for diseases that can cause illness in humans, she said.

Her office identified seven large markets on the islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali and Sulawesi that sell wildlife for consumption. Activists say many smaller markets also sell wildlife meat.

Many of the markets are best known for selling birds taken from the wild in a thriving illicit trade that strips Indonesia’s forests of an estimated 20 million songbirds a year.

At Depok Market, a popular bird and wildlife market in the city of Solo, local authorities ordered the culling of nearly 200 bats over coronavirus fears.

The bats were killed in March by drugging and burning them alive, said the Solo city secretary and COVID-19 task force leader, Ahyani, who like many Indonesians uses one name. The Depok Market remains open, but no longer sells bats.

Officials in Tomohon and other localities have resisted calls to close the sections of markets selling wildlife because they provide an important source of traditional food and income.

The quality of a meal in the region is determined by the diversity of animals being served, so local residents are keen to offer guests a variety of meats. Bush meat often costs as much as or more than farm-raised meat.

The Tomohon Extreme Market is part of a much larger market — the Tomohon Faithful Wilken Market, named for a German missionary — that sells all kinds of items, including fruits and vegetables, hardware, clothing and cellphones.

Tomohon city officials, in response to the coronavirus, cut the market’s hours by more than half in March to reduce social contact.

In the wildlife section, about 120 butchers work in the equatorial heat to carve up the various species they offer, including pythons measuring up to 20 feet long, monitor lizards, whitetail rats, wild boars and rice-field frogs.

In addition to promoting the bush meat trade, the market has also come under attack for the way some sellers procure and kill cats and dogs.

Many of the animals are kidnapped pets, activists say. A 2016 survey by the nonprofit group Animal Friends Manado Indonesia found that 90% of North Sulawesi pet owners reported having a dog or cat stolen.

The local police rarely pursue pet theft cases because they do not consider it a serious crime, said Frank Delano Manus, the group’s program manager.

Manus and Lolowang of the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center said animals sometimes sold for meat at Tomohon and other markets in North Sulawesi belonged to protected species, such as the dwarf cuscus, a large-eyed marsupial; the anoa, a midget buffalo; the Sulawesi crested black macaque, locally known as yaki; and the babirusa, or deer-pig, which is renowned for its large tusks.

He said he hoped that the pandemic would alert people to the risks of consuming bush meat and help them realize that killing wildlife for food is not a sustainable practice.

But he does not expect them to abandon their tradition easily.

“The majority of people in North Sulawesi consume wild animal meats,” he said. “There will be a public outcry if they shut down the wildlife market totally.”