New Internationalist

Bats: not just pests

July 2013

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Ann Froschauer/USFWS under a CC Licence
Healthy Indiana bats Ann Froschauer/USFWS under a CC Licence

At the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market in Thailand, where women ply their fresh flowers, sweets and meats from canoes, many tourists pile back into their buses clutching a ‘bat box’ keepsake – a framed box containing dead bats and insects.

‘We’re doing the locals a favour by helping them get rid of the bats,’ says one Australian. ‘Just think of all the diseases they spread – rabies, malaria, cholera, TB…’

A cursory check on eBay reveals a steady trade in bat boxes from Asia. It’s just one of many threats – ranging from habitat loss, pollution and pesticides – that are sending bat species into decline worldwide. Clearly, bats are misunderstood; clearly, bats are in trouble.

Slow reproducers, most bats give birth to one single offspring every year. This leaves them exceptionally vulnerable to extinction. Rob Mies, Executive Director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, estimates that about half of our 1,200 bat species may be lost over the next 100 years.

Bats’ sinister cultural baggage means it is often forgotten that some 500 agricultural plants, including bananas, avocados and mangos, rely on them for pollination and seed distribution.

Bat byproducts are also a major money spinner. Droppings or guano, a major source of nutrients for fish, salamanders and frogs, makes excellent fertilizer that is sold commercially and used by subsistence farmers across the developing world.

Insect-eating bats control pests and reduce the need for harmful chemicals; the bats in Khao Chong Pran cave in Thailand gobble up close to 20 tonnes of insects every night. Unbeknown to the ‘souvenir’ buyers at Damnoen Saduak, far from spreading malaria, many bats eat the mosquitoes that could otherwise infect humans.

But tourism is a double-edged sword. If handled correctly, it can conserve bat populations while also benefiting local people. The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas, home to a 1.5 million-strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony, is a prime example. It attracts 100,000 visitors every year – and earns $10 million in revenue. It’s time to revise bats’ reputation as evil demons of the night - before it’s too late.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 464 This feature was published in the July 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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