We should thank bats for their contribution to our well-being. Maybe this first sounds strange, but bats are essential to the functioning and the structuring of the earth that humans consider as the only suitable place to live and enjoy. However, these great service providers are in trouble because of some unproven beliefs, stereotypes and stigmas. My question is, why do we not learn to appreciate our helpers even if we do not want to like them? The answer lies in the common Liberian saying, “what you do not know is greater than you and what you don’t understand you need to ask those who know.” I have therefore come to explain the importance of bats and the consequences if we fail to protect them. You might be surprised and learn something when you read this, and maybe you might want to tell others about bats in the same way.
Bats are the only flying mammals in the world! After rodents, bats are the second largest order of mammals. With more than 1,300 species found on six continents, bats make up 20% of all mammalian diversity. Bats feed on a variety of different foods, including a lot of insects, fruits, pollen etc. They range in size from smaller than your thumb to as heavy as 2.5 lbs. (1.2 kg), and different types of bats have evolved to live in different environments – from arid deserts to tropical rainforests, and everything in between.
Bats are irreplaceable to keep the environment structural through the various services they provide. It is estimated that a single insect-eating bat can consume 600 to 1,200 mosquito sized insects in a single hour. Bats also consume other pest insects such as cucumber, potato, and snout beetles which are responsible for crop losses and thus billions of dollars in damage to farmers. It is estimated that about 70% of all bat species worldwide feed on nocturnal crop pest insects. This means that bats do not only help to reduce harmful and inconvenient insects such as mosquitoes, but they are of great value to the world economy and food supplies by controlling insect populations naturally. They are further indispensable for plants pollination and seeds dispersal. Because of their disproportionally high effects on the ecosystem, many bats are so-called keystone species. Without them, plant biodiversity in the world would decrease, affecting useful plants and vital ecosystems around the world. In addition, bat guano (excrement) is appreciated as an organic fertilizer because it contains nitrogen and phosphorus which are critical for plant development.
Despite all these benefits, bats have suffered massive exclusion, ranging from negative human perception to physical elimination. They are among the most underrated and underappreciated animals on our planet. The evidence for that can be seen in negative stereotypes of bats, e.g. some communities in West Africa including Liberia consider the calls of some fruit bats as witchcraft calls. It might ostensibly appear as though bats are just useless animals with no contribution to our existence. However, it also remains unseen that bats are extremely useful to people and many of the earth’s ecosystems. By setting aside prejudices and understanding the importance of bats, we can help save the species whose populations are continually declining.
It is unfortunate that uninformed actions against these useful multipurpose contributors have dramatically increased as human populations have grown and destroyed natural bat habitats. Human activities have increased into remote areas of bat habitats. Habitat destruction, hunting and lack of interest in environmental safety by policy makers have contributed greatly to the decline of many indispensable species including bats. Some bat species depend on primary forests, the same type of forest that is logged for timber. Other bats occur in mangrove forests which are now being converted to farms and harvested for fire wood. Several bats inhabit caves where they are expelled as mining is taking place. The greatest conflicts arise between fruit eating bats and people if bats feed on cash crops in commercial plantations, what they need to do for survival if native forests and natural food sources have declined. The conversion of bat habitats through the expansion of oil palm and rubber plantations, and the intensification of logging and mining activities have been key drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in Liberia and have contributed to bats occurring in homes and agricultural plantations, thereby leading to conflicts. Today, some bats are forced to look for alternative homes in small forest patches, and even a few trees on private and governmental compounds. Examples in Monrovia are the cotton trees (Ceibapentandra) in Grey stone, Slipper Hill, West Point, Water Street, Providence Island, SD Cooper Road, and Harbor City in Maryland. Several coconut trees in Buchanan City and beyond are roosts of the straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum). These bats may not be happy to stay as refugees in these areas but, what can they do if it is safer to stay there than in a natural environment? We might have destroyed their home forests and turned them into plantations, mining sites, roads and communities with remote consideration and careless policies. Development is welcome but it should consider holistic and sustainable planning to avoid environmental consequences.
West Africa is on record to undergo a steep increase in logging in recent years. Guinea’s rainforest has been reduced by 80 percent. Liberia has sold rights for more than half of its forest to logging, mining and industrial agriculture companies. Sierra Leone is on track to be almost completely deforested in the near future. As a result, habitats for wildlife have been substantially shrinking, raising the risk of species extinction. If humans fail to recognize the little contribution that each species makes to keep our environment functional, we will reap the consequences thereof. For example, bats are the reservoirs of viruses which may infect and kill people (e.g. rabies and Ebola viruses). However, the risk to get in touch with these organisms has only recently increased with our spatial expansion. In the past fifteen years, research focused on identifying viruses carried by bats has increased worldwide. In the past few years, evidence has been found that bats may be the natural reservoirs of entire families of viruses. Members of these virus families may have evolved into measles, mumps, hepatitis C virus, Ebola virus, and corona viruses such as SARS CoV and the newly identified Middle East respiratory syndrome corona virus (MERS CoV). Ebola virus outbreaks have been associated with up to 90% mortality, leading to intensified efforts to understand the mechanisms by which these viruses infect people, and prevent such outbreaks from occurring in future most especially in West Africa. Multifunctional ecosystem science and policies linked to human well-being are thus urgently required to address these problems rather than simply blaming easy targets such as bats and other animals.
Despite all this, Liberians have again intensified their eating of wild animals including bats, rodents and primates that may host these fatal viruses as well as making policies that force wildlife into human environments in disregard of environmental consequences. Have you one day sat and thought about everything around you and why bats and other animals were made part of the earth? Do you think if only humans would lived on the planet, that our living would be complete? All we need to do is to consider the environmental consequence of what we do as humans. It is not just about saving bats and wildlife, but saving us and our future generations. We are here to help, within an initiative of Bat Conservation International (BCI) supported by the Disney Conservation Fund. Please contact us on +231886610389 and [email protected], if you want to know more.