COVID-19 WhatsApp hoax threatens Illupai trees across Chennai

Indian flying foxes visiting Illupai trees at night to feed on the fruits is a common scene in Chennai. A fake message linking these creatures with the novel coronavirus has led to many residents contemplating felling these trees. But here's what you must know.

A few residents across the city have started planning to axe venerable Illupai trees also known as the Indian Butter Tree (Madhuca longifolia) in their neighbourhood. One such tree stands majestically at 2nd Cross Street, Karpagam Gardens. It was declared as a heritage tree in 2015 due to its age and rarity in the city, by the Greater Chennai Corporation, facilitated by K.S. Kandasamy, then Deputy Commissioner Works, and Nizhal, a Trust for tree conservation.

This gruesome thought seems to have been triggered by a WhatsApp message by a news channel with the misleading headline ‘In a First, Coronaviruses found in two species of bats, Indian Flying fox and Rousettus’. But the content clearly indicates that the bat Coronaviruses (Bt-Cov) identified has no evidence to prove that the virus jumped from bats to humans via intermediary species according to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV) in a published research. Later, ICMR has also made an announcement that the virus found in bats is not capable of affecting humans (Times Nation, April 16, 2020).

Then why is the Illupai tree under threat?

The Illupai trees, besides sequestering carbon and providing oxygen to the residents around, fruits during the summer – March and May. One can see Indian flying foxes in Chennai visiting these trees at night to feed on the fruits and help in seed dispersal. Is it that the urban citizens who have been disconnected from nature all these decades have started being aware of natural phenomena, due to the lockdown?

The misleadingly titled WhatsApp message has triggered panic among people, resulting in fear rather than strengthening the bond with nature.

Citizens need to know a few facts on the Illupai tree and bats:

  1. Illupai tree is native to India and has flourished in Chennai for centuries. However, due to rapid urbanisation their numbers have dwindled. Some of the very old trees can be found inside Adyar Cancer Institute, IIT Madras campus, near Sankara School, Thiruvanmiyur, Indira Nagar Corporation Park and at Karpagam Gardens as already mentioned earlier, to name a few.
  2. The flowers of this tree are natural sweeteners. There is a Tamizh proverb ‘Alaai illaatha ooril iluppai poo sarkarai’ – meaning – In the place where there is no sugar factory, Illupai flowers is the sugar!
  3. Illupai fruits are considered as nutritional security, as the fruit is rich in minerals and vitamins, besides being delicious.
  4. Its seed oil is medicinal.

For decades, the many villages like Perambur near Sirkazhi, Vavval Thoppu in Salem, and Vishar near Kanchipuram, refrain from bursting crackers during festivals so as not to scare bats in their area. In Perambur village, they have formed a vigilance team to protect the bats from bat hunters. They worship bats roosting on the Banyan tree as they are seen as a sign of prosperity and good health!

It is ironic to think of axing the trees and eliminating bats in the land where Thiruvalluvar said, ‘பகுத்துஉண்டு பல்லுயிர் ஒம்புதல் நூலோர் தொகுத்தவற்றுள் எல்லாம் தலை’ – meaning – Let those that need partake your meal; Guard every-thing that lives!

Let humanity prevail, in extending unconditional love to each and every living being on earth. We hope the trees will be spared!

The article was originally published on the website of Adyar Times, and can be viewed here.

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