Bats have a poor image. Associated with Dracula, the man who sucks blood, they often feature in movies as dirty, part-evil creatures that spread disease. Maybe that’s why few people seems to pay attention to them - even if they are facing an uncertain future. By Henrylito D. Tacio.
Tambo, Phillipines, 7 June 2019. Unlike endangered animals such whales, eagles and the panda, bats are not high up on most people’s ‘must protect’ list. Which, according to activist protector Norma Montfort is a crying shame. She calls them angels of the night.
“Many (magazines, newspapers and television) have done wonderful features on what we are doing here but I am left wondering why it hasn’t generated any offers of real help,” says Norma Monfort, also known as “Mama Bat” to her friends and associates.
Monfort is the founder of Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation Foundation, an organisation which looks after millions of bats that roost in a cave near Tambo, on Samal Island, the Philippines. “There are so many misconceptions about bats,” she explains. “Many people think bats are blind, dirty and carriers of rabies virus. Those are myths. Bats are not blind and also do not become entangled with human hair!”
And the myth about rabies isn’t true either. All mammals can contract rabies; however, the vast majority of bats do not, according to fact sheets from Bat Conservation International. And the rare bats that do contract rabies usually die quickly from the disease, and so pose little risk to the general public.
Blood suckers? There are only three bat species that do that: the common vampire bat, the rarer hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat, and they all prefer animals. The common vampire feeds on horses and cows while the latter two prefer birds. Even on nights of the full moon.
But back in Tambo, Monfort’s bats are all Geoffroy’s Rousette Fruit bats, or Rousettus amplexicaudatus, not even a remote chance of jugular-nipping there. In 2010, it was estimated there were about 1.8 million bats in the single 280m long cave. That’s a lot of bats – but they are a valuable part of the local eco-system.
Monfort explains how these nocturnal creatures are invaluable for the environment. “They have always been major agents of reforestation,” she says. “They are avid pollinators, and they help maintain many - over 500 - species of plants, trees and fruits that are in turn habitats for other important species.” Also, bats play a big role in fruit production – especially durian – in the region. Durian buds only open for one hour during the night, which allows the bats to pollinate them when bees and other pollinators are all tucked up asleep. “No-one thanks the bats, because they think they are pests. They are not. They’re just wonderful,” says Montfort.
They are also a great source of guano, or bat poo, one of the most effective natural fertilizers due to its exceptionally high nitrogen, phosphate and potassium content. Alibaba alone list 22 types for sale, and Monfort says a kilo of guano can fetch nearly US$200. Better still, bats eat mosquitoes. Studies have shown that a single bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitoes in just one hour, that’s a quarter tonne of potential malaria and dengue-spreaders a night for an average sized bat colony of a million or so bats.
Athough the Philippines is home to 26 indigenous bat species, many are listed as threatened. Two of the major threats identified are bat hunting for food, and excessive cave disturbance due to guano mining. Bats are also killed because of rumours that they are supernatural evil creatures, and many just die off because of the destruction of bat habitats such as forests (for megabats) and caves (for microbats).
But the news is better in Montfort’s caves. The population there is exploding. She estimates the population has already swelled to about 2.5 million.
“Contrary to scientific opinion that bats supposedly give birth only once a year, it is a year-long occurrence here.” She tells of pregnant and lactating females still being mated by several males. This has resulted to an overload of bats in the cave, so she is working on an expansion of their accommodation potential. The area currently has some seventy caves, most of which used to be inhabited by bats – but are now empty.
“I plan to build bat houses like those used in Cambodia and Vietnam so we can collect guano, sell it and make a profit,” she said. This would mean that the bats could directly help the local economy. She has already applied for grants that would help build artificial roosts, but is looking at siting two or three ex-shipping containers donated by local companies. She also plans to ask local University scientists to help replicate cave roost conditions, and to help study the animals too.
“This could help answer the two nagging questions: Can humans transmit diseases to bats with the growing number of visitors? And would increasingly numbers of bats possibly transmit any disease to humans?” she says. So far, little research has been done on these areas, she says, although to date there has been no record of diseases or even rabies coming from bats on the island, even from way back when she was a child.
During weekends and holidays, she would venture inside a local cave to see the bats. "To me it was a ‘matter-of-fact thing.’ I don’t recall being amazed," she admits. But growing up and seeing them all the time made her want to take care of the creatures, despite the smell. "Instead of fear, I feel being amazed and stand in awe before such a great sight," she said. "You marvel and become inspired by God’s creation."
There are new uncertainties though. Recent agrarian law reforms put a limit on individual possession of agricultural land, so her ownership of the land where the bat caves are is in some doubt. Together with the Bat Conservation International (BCI) and various other NGOs, Monfort has signed an agreement protecting the cave as the Monfort Bat Conservation Park, pledging to conserve, protect and respect (CPR) the winged wonders.
“Without the bats,” she warns, “There could be war. If you do not have forest, you do not have food, we are going to kill each other first, to secure food for ourselves.”