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Monday, June 17, 2024

Dangerous Dining in Rural Laos: The Catastrophic Consequences of Curious Cuisine

This Week

Although the consumption of wildlife is a time-honored tradition in Laos, as well as many other parts of the world, in an era of globalization marked by pandemic disease and species loss, it is a habit that humanity can no longer afford, writes Evan Dixon.

I was seated at a table in a rural restaurant surrounded by the guests of a wedding that had taken place earlier. The crickets sang on in the fields beyond. Attempting to break through the awkward silence, I picked up a kebab skewer with some blackened bits of meat on it.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Bat!” came the answer.

“Bat?” I repeated, incredulous.

“Yes, bat,” Mr. Noi, our host, responded, grinning. “You know, in Laos, the only flying thing we won’t eat is an airplane.” Laughter, all around.

Looking closer, I could clearly distinguish the charred remnants of its wings, wrapped close around its tiny body, as though in an ineffectual attempt to shield itself from the heat of the grill. At least it had been well-cooked, I thought grimly.

“Try it!” Mr. Noi urged.

The idea of tasting the bat was far from my mind, though. Bats are, like many species of wildlife, well-known to host both parasites and reservoirs of zoonotic viruses, which are capable of infecting across species, including humans. Bats, in particular, have been known to harbor such dangerous viruses as rabies, SARS, MERS, and even covid-19, and they have a strong potential for originating as-yet-unseen viral infections.

Scientists are not certain about why bats, in particular, are so likely to originate diseases, but it seems to have some connection to their extremely high metabolism and hardy immune system, which function as a training ground for emerging pathogens.

Although Mr. Noi’s taste in meat may have struck me as unusual, taking a more anthropological view of the phenomenon, it is anything but. Throughout most of human history, people have been sufficiently desperate for nutrition that they have likely not given much thought to what constitutes a meal.

Indeed, in many cultures around the world today, the consumption of exotic animals, and certain of their body parts in particular, are held in such high esteem that they are felt to possess medicinal or even magical properties. Here in Laos, one might commonly find this in the form of liquors infused with certain animal species. In earlier eras of human history, when long-distance travel was something of a rarity, these infections may have arisen and dissipated without much notice from the wider world.

Wildlife on display at a local market in Laos (WCS)
Wildlife is on display at a rural market in Laos (WCS).

Yet, considering the health risks of such practices in today’s highly globalized world, which is so susceptible to the emergence of pandemics, not to mention the threats to ecological balance that may be caused by resulting species loss, humanity simply must change its eating habits. It is within this context that ideas such as the One Health approach have begun to take hold in Laos, as well as other countries, to bring experts and governmental authorities into multi-disciplinary and collaborative efforts to prevent and address such health issues.

Collaboration between the Mérieux Foundation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to address cross-sectoral approaches to zoonotic diseases is one such outcome, bridging the gap between human and animal health authorities.

In the past, the project has also undertaken critically important awareness campaigns on such issues as the pork tapeworm, advocating for hygienic and husbandry practices to help to limit the spread of the pernicious parasites. The pork tapeworm can cause not only gastric disruption but also lead to blindness, the development of epilepsy, and death, as the parasitic cysts begin to develop in the nervous system and brain of human hosts.

And yet, wildlife consumption remains so common in Laos that Mr. Noi’s bat is not even the first exotic meat I have been offered this year. A few months prior, on a cool evening on the windswept Bolaven plateau, my hosts for the night offered me a mysterious, bubbling pot of curried meat that they called hôn. I mistook it for the Lao word for “hot,” assuming I was being warned about the heat of the dish; thankfully I chose to err on the side of caution, owing to a long motorbike ride the following day.

To dine on 'pine is considered a treat in parts of Laos.
To dine on ‘pine is considered a treat in parts of Laos.

Hôn, as it turns out, is Lao for the brush-tailed porcupine, which is also a vector of zoonotic disease, and a protected species to boot. Although it is threatened largely due to trafficking to neighboring countries for use as traditional medicine, not so much due to localized consumption, zoonotic diseases do not differentiate in these matters.

Any of the friendly young local men I had previously observed warily wandering the hill-paths of the plateau, slingshots in hand, could play host to the next zoonotic crisis. Nevertheless, food is deeply personal, and a quick route to anyone’s heart seems to be through their stomach—culinary culture and traditions are a hard habit to kick, particularly when fueled by the high profits and quick turnover of the wildlife meat industry.

Mr. Noi, meanwhile, perhaps motivated by my hesitation to taste his bat, has been recounting a tale of an attempt to send some local sausages to a friend working overseas in a nearby country. The sausages were intercepted, and the friend was fined and reprimanded harshly by local health authorities there.

“They told him, ‘How dare you try to bring your germs into our country!?’” Mr. Noi recollects, his affable demeanor giving way to aggrievance. Regardless of the intent, those health authorities’ admonitions had clearly been taken as an insult to his country, cuisine, and culture.

“Try it, it’s good!” he cajoles again, indicating the skewer of grilled bat.

How can I make myself understood here, I wondered. How can I get out of this without eating the bat, but without offending anyone?

The eyes of the other dinner guests were fixed on me. Clearly, there was going to be no easy alternative, and whereas public awareness campaigns against wildlife consumption have the luxury of being quite impersonal, I was in a different position. Especially following Mr. Noi’s story about the intercepted sausages, it seemed that I was going to have to either take a serious health risk, or commit an unfortunate faux-pas.

My palms began to sweat, and the crickets filled another awkward silence as I weighed my options, again and again.

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