North Sulawesi has a high risk of disease transmission from wild animals to domestic livestock and humans. Apart from the rich biodiversity of the island, the local habit of meat consumption exposes communities to zoonotic diseases.
Christian Pangouw (35) was busy grilling bat meat in Langowan Market one Saturday in October last year, using a blow torch connected to a 3-kilogram gas canister. Once the fur was gone, he chopped it into parts, wrapped the packages and handed them over to a waiting customer.
Pangouw, a villager from Waleure, in Minahasa district, North Sulawesi, has been trading wildlife meat for 25 years, since he was a child. Today, he serves many customers.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the number of customers dwindled. Especially, when news began to circulate that the Covid-19 virus might have come from a bat that was sold in Wuhan local market in China.
On 26 March 2020, in a report on the origins of Covid-19, scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it was likely that the coronavirus was transmitted by bats through an unknown intermediate animal before being transmitted to humans.
The report also stated that environmental samples taken from Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan City in December 2019 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, further suggesting that the market in Wuhan City was the source of this outbreak or played a role in the initial amplification of the outbreak.
“Maybe they were afraid after hearing the news, also the people’s economy was hit,” said Pangouw.
Pangouw said he was not afraid of the information that Covid-19 came from bats. He did not even believe it, as well as the threat of other diseases from wild animals. Because he and others have been trading in Langowan market for years, they are not worried about any infections or diseases.
Bat meat, a delicacy, is priced higher in this region compared to other meat. Cooked or broiled bat meat is sold between Rp50,000-Rp60,000 ($3.50-$4) per kilogram. For comparison, other meat such as pork is priced Rp45,000 ($3) per kilogram, chicken at Rp30,000 ($2) per kilogram. Many who consume bat meat believe it has nutrients that can help maintain stamina in the body, and it’s more delicious compared to other meat.
“We’re fine, we aren’t sick or infected with any diseases,” he said.
Pangouw is particular about maintaining his hygiene. After returning from the market, he cleans himself up before continuing with other chores. “I get all dirty and there is animal blood, so I will shower when I get home,” he said.
The people of North Sulawesi have been in the habit of consuming wild animals for generations. Many local people and traders alike said they were not afraid of the zoonotic threat from wild animals.
Several traditional markets sell the meat of wildlife meat such as bats or paniki in the local language, pythons, wild rats, wild boars, and monitor lizards. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, some wildlife meat markets are still full of buyers.
Today, most wildlife intended for consumption is sold dead at Langowan Market. According to traders, bats for instance, were sold alive in the past. Customers would select the bats from the cage, then they would be butchered and grilled on the spot.
According to a trader, Vian Oroh (36), 15-20 years ago, there were still many bats in the surrounding area so they could be sold alive. But now they come in boxes covered with ice cubes, as supply comes from outside of North Sulawesi, and usually takes days to arrive at the markets.
The wildlife meat trade at the Tomohon Market, about 30 kilometers from the Langowan Market, North Sulawesi, is also bustling. Ferry Mamuaya (50), one of the traders, said that he was not afraid of the threat of disease caused by wild animals either. Nor did he believe that Covid-19 originated from bats in Wuhan, China.
Mamuaya has been trading wildlife meat for 30 years and claims he is doing fine. The most important thing according to him is to make sure the meat is cooked properly. “How can they not get sick in China; they don’t cook it properly. Some even just boil it,” he said to Tribunmanado in October 2021. He said he learned this method of cooking through television programs that he watched, and information that was shared among the local people.
Like the other traders, Mamuaya also admitted that bat is the best-selling meat and is considered the most delicious. If one is feeling weak, he added, bat meat could restore stamina. “The point is, if you eat this (bats), it can make you strong again,” he said.
Mamuaya said he makes sure to clean himself when he gets home, before continuing to other tasks. “You have to take a shower, you have to clean yourself up,” he said.
Mamuaya’s customer, Johny Moningka (59), is a resident of Pinaras in Tomohon City. He said that he still regularly consumes wildlife meat. He, too, said it was important to cook it properly. “The cooking has to be right, it has to be really cooked. The virus in the flesh must die,” said Moningka.
Sugiyono Saputra, microbiology researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), agreed: “When the animal is well cooked, for example at a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius, when it boils for an hour, it is theoretically clean, there will be no pathogens,” said Saputra. However, humans can still get diseases that come from animals through interaction. The transmission process take place when processing or hunting wild animals, he said.
The high risk of zoonotic transmission
Christian Walzer, Executive Director for Health in the Global Conservation Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was quoted in Live Science saying that zoonoses are infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites that spread from animals to humans.
In some cases, zoonotic diseases are transmitted through direct contact with infected animals and in other cases transmission can be found through drinking water containing eggs of zoonotic parasites, usually in cases associated with tapeworms (taeniasis). Another way of transmission is through insect vectors (insects), for example mites, fleas or ticks which are eaten by infected animals and then those animals are eaten by humans. In the process, the insect transfers infectious organisms.
According to Walzer, the Covid-19 pandemic provides a clear reminder that handling or having close contact with wildlife, along with body parts and/or their excretions such as blood, saliva, and urine (the potent mixture that earned the “wet” market its name), poses a risk of spreading the pathogens that they host and maintain in nature, and that can lead to zoonotic infections.
Anang Setiawan Ahmad, staff researcher from the Biological Research Center of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) explained there are many factors that can trigger diseases in animals, even wild animals that are free in nature, (but even more so in confined conditions). Diseases can attack especially when animals are weak, stressed, in a dirty environment, and under poor care.
But often, these zoonotic pathogens do not affect the animals in which they live, although they can pose an enormous risk to humans who have no natural immunity to them. However, despite several scientific studies, awareness of the threat following an infection remains low, or in some cases non-existent.
In the case of bats, a research by Ageng Wiyatno in 2017 entitled “The Interaction of Bats and Humans: Zoonotic Potential in Indonesia”, found that wild animals such as bats contain a high virus count. The total count of viruses found in all bat species was 61 types.
Wiyatno said currently more than 248 new viruses have been isolated or detected in bats over the last 10 years and some of these viruses have strong zoonotic potential, for example viruses from the Coronaviridae, Herpesviridae, Paramyxoviridae, Adenovirus, and Astrovirus families. Other zoonotic diseases that spread from wild animal hosts to human populations include the West Nile Virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and now, Covid-19.
Of course, it’s not just wild animals that harbor viruses. The Triangulation Survey on Domestic Animals on Sulawesi Island conducted by the Maros Veterinary Department and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Emergency Center for Transboundary Diseases (ECTAD) Indonesia in 2016 found that other domestic animals such as pigs were also detected to have five virus families such as Influenza (HPAI, Human Flu, Paramyxovirus (Nipah, Hendra), Coronavirus (SARS, Mers Cov), Filovirus (Ebola), and Flavivirus (JE). Other examples of zoonoses in domestic animals include the bacterial disease E.coli and toxoplasmosis.
The target population in this study were domestic animals that were bred, namely cows, buffaloes, horses, pigs, and goats, and were likely to have close interactions with wild animals. The research also revealed that North Sulawesi has an elevated risk of disease transmission from wildlife to livestock and humans, possibly because of the biodiversity in the region. Several types of wildlife ranging from anoa, hog deer, wild boars, monkeys, possum, tarsiers, bats, rodents, lizards, hornbills, and Maleo birds inhabit North Sulawesi, which has had a wildlife meat-eating tradition for generations.
Globally, zoonoses are responsible for about 1 billion cases of human disease and millions of human deaths every year. About 60 percent of new diseases reported globally are considered zoonotic, and 75 percent of new human pathogens detected in the last 30 years are of animal origin, said Walzer.
Walzer also said limiting the possibility of contact between humans and wild animals is the most effective way to reduce the risk of new zoonotic diseases emerging. This should include closing live animal markets that sell wildlife, strengthening efforts to combat domestic and cross-border wildlife trafficking, and working to change harmful wildlife consumption behaviors.
Hanna Tioho, Head of the Regional Technical Implementation Unit (UPDT) of the Animal Health and Veterinary Public Health Laboratory of the North Sulawesi Agriculture and Husbandry Department, said that at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, his department visited the Tomohon and Langowan markets to examine wildlife that were being traded, especially bats which were said to be the source of Covid-19.
According to Tioho, tests were conducted at that time and no bats were found positive for Covid-19. In a bid to tackle the spread of zoonotic diseases, Tioho said the administration routinely sensitizes traders and buyers in traditional markets to maintain cleanliness. “District officials have been diligent in their visits to the market to educate traders about the threats of zoonoses and how they can keep themselves clean,” he said.
Tioho admits it will take time for people to stop consuming wildlife and domestic animals. “It’s not easy, but we need to continue to educate the public.”
Until then, consumers like Johny Moningka will continue to purchase bat and wild boar meat at local markets, as they and their families have done for generations.
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.