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Bats: not just pests


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

At the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market in Thailand, where women sell flowers, sweet and meat from small boats, many tourists buy a ‘bat box’ – a box with dead bats and insects inside.

‘We’re helping the local people by taking away the bats,’ says one Australian. ‘Think of all the diseases they spread – rabies, malaria, cholera, TB…’

I checked on eBay and found that there is a good business in bat boxes from Asia. This is one of many threats – habitat loss, pollution and pesticides – that are cutting the numbers of bat species worldwide. Clearly, people don’t understand bats; and bats are in trouble.

Most bats only have one baby each year. This means they could be in danger of extinction. Rob Mies, Executive Director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, thinks that we could lose about half of our 1,200 bat species over the next 100 years. Bats are famous for horror films, so many people forget that about 500 agricultural plants, including bananas, avocados and mangos, need them for pollination and seed distribution.

Bat products also make a lot of money. Droppings or “guano”, a major source of food for fish, salamanders and frogs, is excellent fertilizer that is sold and used by small scale farmers across the developing world.

Some bats eat insects and reduce the need for harmful chemicals; the bats in Khao Chong Pran cave in Thailand eat about 20 tonnes of insects every night. The tourists who buy the bat boxes in the floating market don’t know this, but bats don’t spread malaria. Instead, many bats eat the mosquitoes that could give malaria to humans.

But tourism can be good or bad. If tourism is done well, it can keep the numbers of bats and also be good for local people. A good example is the Congress Avenue Bridge in central Austin, Texas, where 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live. 100,000 visitors come to see them every year – and they earn $10 million from this. It’s time to change what people think about bats before it’s too late – they are good, not bad!

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