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How bats keep the ecosystem safe and make our lives better

On Bat Appreciation Day, a researcher speaks to Lounge about how attitudes to the species have changed

An Indian Flying-fox or fruit bat in Tissamaharma, Sri Lanka.
An Indian Flying-fox or fruit bat in Tissamaharma, Sri Lanka. (Getty)

People tend to be fearful of bats but there are many reasons to appreciate them. Insect-eating bats, for instance, prey on pest-insects found in rice, cotton and corn fields and vineyards. There are, in fact, a lot of insect prey that bats feed on, helping our food security.

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Many tropical plants rely on fruit-eating bats for pollination and seed dispersal. One example from India is wild bananas. Many species of mangroves too are pollinated by bats, so they help build up our coastal defence. Another plant that benefits from bats is mahua, popular in the tribal cultures of central and south India.

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India has around 130 species of bats, some of them unique to the country. The icon for bat conservation in India would be the Kolar leaf-nosed bat, a critically endangered species found in just one cave in Kolar. There are only an estimated 250 individuals left in that colony. Unfortunately, these bats remain completely unprotected; they don’t figure in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

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Bats provide not just ecosystem services but also economic benefits, through the use of bat guano or bat poop. In the caves of south-east Asia and India, bats produce huge amounts of guano that can be used as natural fertiliser. In south-east Asia, this is often mined in a regulated fashion, minimising the disturbance to bats. It can be quite an attractive proposition commercially.

Also read: When a virus jumps: of man, microbes and pandemics

During fieldwork, I have seen that people are not harming bats, as they used to, though attitudes towards them have not changed much. Bats are still not appreciated as much as they should be. That’s one of the things that strikes me about the International Bat Appreciation Day (celebrated on 17 April). For most other animals, you have an international conservation day; here, there is no mention of the word “conservation”.

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Kolar leaf-nosed bat at it's only known roost in Hanumanahalli, Kolar, Karnataka.
Kolar leaf-nosed bat at it's only known roost in Hanumanahalli, Kolar, Karnataka. (Rajesh Puttaswamaiah/Wikimedia Commons)

Now that we have covid-19 vaccines, the root message is again retreating to the background: In order to prevent zoonotic diseases, we have to learn to coexist with nature. Human health is closely linked to the health of the ecosystem. The covid-19 virus is thought to have originated from the horseshoe bat. These bats don’t live very close to humans. Though we will probably never know its true origins and how it jumped to humans, it’s clear that if the virus originated in a forest-dwelling bat, there is some kind of disturbance in that ecosystem. The interface between man and nature is changing, leading to new diseases. This cannot be ignored. At least the large-scale economic loss should drive home the fact that we have to live in harmony with nature.

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Also read: Scientists focus on bats for clues to prevent next pandemic

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In order to make people aware, however, you need knowledge. That’s the problem in India, where bats have suffered due to a severe lack of research. Until a few years ago, there weren’t too many people studying these animals. That is changing slowly. In the last year (through research and outreach efforts), we have managed to make a positive impact on dispelling some of the myths about bats. But there’s very little awareness among people on the ecosystem services they provide. That’s the next step—making people aware of how bats make our lives better.

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Rohit Chakravarty is a PhD student at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, studying bats in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

- As told to Nitin Sreedhar

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