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Batting for the bat

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Conservation Bats are dubbed as vermin in the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, leaving them vulnerable to hunting and extermination. Akila Kannadasan reports

When the moon comes out and the world goes to sleep, they take off in to the night in search of food. They travel long distances, only to return to their roost at dawn. Bats have been our neighbours for years — we hear them screech, see their dark forms flying at dusk, smell them, and observe them hanging upside down from trees. But have we ever spared a though for their well-being?

Ironically, The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, enacted by the Indian Government to protect wildlife has turned out to be the bats’ worst enemy. Fruit bats are listed under Schedule V of the Act along with the common crow, mice and rats. This means that the animal is deemed to be ‘vermin’ and is devoid of any protection. Therefore, hunting a fruit bat is not a crime, according to the Act.

Man Vs. wild

But why was the fruit bat listed under Schedule V in the first place? “It was thought that fruit-eating bats damaged grapes and guava orchards,” says Dr. G. Marimuthu, Head, Department of Animal Behaviour, Madurai Kamaraj University. And so without any detailed study, the animal was labelled ‘vermin’ in 1972, he explains. Despite their attempts to get fruit bats off Schedule V, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has remained unresponsive. “They are ignoring academicians,” he says. According to Marimuthu’s study on bats, birds cause more damage to fruits such as grapes during the day than bats do at night.

Sanjay Molur, Executive Director, Zoo Outreach Organisation, feels that fruit bats are falsely branded as ‘eaters of grapes’. “There is more loss due to transportation and untimely plucking,” he says. Since bats prefer highly ripened fruits, how can they be blamed for the damage of fruits not harvested on time, he asks.

Compared to people dedicated to the cause of animals such as tigers, there are very few batting for bats. Perhaps they are not considered glamourous enough? “That’s also a mind-set,” says Sanjay. Marimuthu has spent 35 years of his life researching bats. “I’ve often been asked why I’m studying such an animal,” he laughs.

But there are youngsters such as Joseph Reginald Louis of SACON who are coming forward to study bats. Joseph is fascinated by them. Fruit bats, with their big eyes and pointed snouts look cute, he says. “I would call them nocturnal angels.” This is because bats have a lot of “ecological impact.” They contribute a great deal to pollination and seed dispersal, explains Joseph.

A guava seed gets to travel long distances if the fruit is eaten by a bat. The seed, released in a new place with the excreta, has more chances of developing into a healthy tree than a normal seed, according to Marimuthu. “A seed that passes through the stomach of a bat has a better rate of germination,” he says.

Insect bats keep mosquitoes under control. “An insect bat that weighs two grams can eat up to 300 mosquitoes in an hour,” explains Sanjay. This way, bats directly contribute to keeping dengue at bay.

Despite their contributions to the environment, bats have more enemies than friends. Joseph feels that man is their biggest threat. Man hunts the animal for meat and superstitious beliefs. “In Pollachi, a man has made hunting bats his occupation. He is known as ‘Vavval pudikkiravan’ (bat-catcher) in the area,” says Joseph.

Hunting and destruction of habitat has further threatened certain bat species. Joseph has observed a colony of them in Coimbatore that was forced to move since their home, a tree, was destroyed. The colony has changed four roosting sites already.

Creating awareness

What can be done to help them? The change has to start in the minds of the people, feels Joseph. He speaks about the importance of bats to people who live close to bat colonies. “I tell them how bats are worshipped in places like China,” he says. Zoo Outreach has brought out ‘bat kits’ with posters, masks and manuals that train people to create awareness on bats. Marimuthu is doing his bit by talking about bats to school and college students.

He suggests that farmers harvest their fruits a little before they are fully ripe to prevent them from attracting bats. “Bats are attracted to the Singapore cherry, a non-commercial fruit found in roadsides. We found that the number of night visits of bats to eat the fruit is 500 times more than commercial fruits such as mango, guava and grapes. Farmers can divert bats by planting the Singapore cherry around their orchards.”

Bat research in India has a lot of unexplored realms. “How far does a bat travel per day? What are its foraging patterns? We are yet to find out,” says Joseph. So, why do bats hang upside down? “It’s part of evolution. It saves energy since they are not positioned against the force of gravity. Besides, the posture helps in easy take off.”

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