Summer has come early to the far side of the world, and the days are long, hot and dripping. I write from Madagascar’s Makira-Masoala peninsula, the island’s densest and most biodiverse rainforest where my team and I are hard at work pathogen-sampling resident fruit bats from the research site of National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Chris Golden. For most of the past decade, Golden has investigated nutritional subsidies which local communities derive from consumption of wild forest animals—the so-called bushmeat trade. At least two species of fruit bat—Pteropus rufus and Rousettus madagascariensis—make up one component of the bushmeat trade in this Betsimitsaraka region, and we’re here to find out if these bats carry any pathogens that pose risk for zoonotic (human-to-animal) emergence.
Some 70 percent of emerging pathogens are zoonotic, or derived from animal reservoirs, in nature (Woolhouse and Gowtage-Sequiera 2005). Ebola virus represents one obvious example of a bat-derived zoonosis, but there are many others: rabies and related lyssaviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS and MERS coronaviruses, to name those of the highest profile. Several human outbreaks of these pathogens have been linked directly to consumption of bats as bushmeat (including the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa), or to human contact with bats at fruit trees, as has occurred with Nipah emergence following consumption of date palm sap in Bangladesh. Human antibodies to Ebola-related filoviruses are typically higher in forest vs. urban communities on the African continent, and these same human antibodies have been documented previously in Madagascar, though no known filovirus outbreaks have taken place on the island to date.
I sit under a lychee tree and watch the bats—fanihy and andrehy by their local Malagasy names—chew up fruits in the moonlight. A messy pile of discarded shells and seeds riddles the ground in front of me where, waiting for dusk, our research team has been feasting on these selfsame fruits. It’s no wonder that human antibodies to zoonotic pathogens are high in forest communities, I think to myself. Some sort of human-animal contact or exposure seems almost inevitable. I wonder for a moment if I should quit eating lychee fruits—but then our masters student, Miora, offers me a ripe handful, and I break the hard skin and bite into the fleshy fruit. It explodes with flavor that smacks of long summer days on my grandfather’s ranch, and I decide I’ll wait to ban lychees until we get our pathogen results back. My colleague, Christian, declines his turn at the lychee bowl. “I only trust fruits picked while it’s raining,” he says, gesturing at a rare cloudless night. I marvel at his wisdom—born of a world with more risks than my own.
Sometimes I fall asleep in my Crazy Creek camp chair and wake with a start to the swoosh of bat wings against a net. Other times, sleep is impossible, for Christian’s desired rain seems perpetual—up to seven meters per year in this wettest corner of Madagascar. I learn that even Gortex has limits, and I wonder if my feet will ever unwrinkle again. This eastern coast is the Madagascar I remember from the first, where I claw at mosquito bites in itchy impatience until my legs are scratched and bleeding. When it’s wet, the leeches come to feast on my open wounds, and when it’s dry, the flies take their place. Band-aids shrivel in the mud, and try as I might to douse my cuts in alcohol and iodine, I watch them turn angry red, then yellow and oozing, and my legs puff up to twice their original width. At last, I give up and swallow a course of cephalexin—a skin antibiotic—and it’s like being made into superwoman. Infection is reduced almost instantly, and within 24 hours, my cuts are healed over as if Hermione Granger doctored them with essence of dittany. But there’s not enough of this stuff to go around. Local people in the nearby villages see a vazaha and ask me for fanafody—medicine—of any sort to heal their own aches and pains, and I am forced to explain that I am not studying to be that kind of doctor.
I dutifully wash my clothes and my overgrown hair (okay, I admit that was only once…) with biodegradable soap in a bucket 200 ft from water, but I laugh at the futility of the action as the rest of my team scrubs down with what looks to be pure lye in the middle of the river. I say nothing because, well, what is there to say? It’s not like Dr. Brommer’s is readily available in rural Madagascar. I sew up new rips in my pants, my backpack, my watch strap, and I count the days until I’ll go home to buy replacements. I offer Miora Purell to clean her hands in between bat captures, and she marvels at the sweet-smelling product. “Where did you buy this?” she asks eagerly. “America,” I answer helplessly, wishing I could tell her Analakely. But no, all of this stuff comes from America.
I do much thinking out here at the ends of the Earth—where the Milky Way arcs over the forest, and the shooting stars mingle with the fireflies and fall off the horizon into the Indian Ocean. For those who live in rural Madagascar, this rainforest is their entire livelihood, offering its nutritional bounties in tandem with its multitude of zoonotic risks. For me, I am blessed to flit between this world and another, able to appreciate this rainforest for its wildness and its beauty but not depend on its fickle offerings for my own survival. I bring luxuries from my other world to enable my survival and minimize my impact in this one, but what of the people—almost everyone else—who know only this one reality? That, I expect, is a question I’ll be pondering under the bat net for years to come…
“Sambatra ianao, Cara,” says Miora. You are blessed. And she is right. Sambatra. My good friend and former Madagascar Peace Corps volunteer, Kim Conner, has the Malagasy word tattooed on her forearm—a reminder to herself to keep track of life’s blessings. I wonder vaguely if I should do the same…