sign in a cave in Laos

9 June 2008

Bats are our friends

Bats are our friends

By Liz Price

THE STAR Lifestyle
Saturday, February 22, 2003

Did your mother ever warn you to be careful when walking at night, to make sure a bat doesn’t fly into your hair?

Have you heard the expressions “bats in the belfry” or “blind as a bat”? Did you spend late nights terrified in front of the TV watching scary films of bats attacking humans? These are some of the misconceptions we humans have about bats.

Bats are our friends. This is how we should consider those nocturnal mammals that fly in the dark.

Sadly, bats have a bad reputation amongst the general public and have suffered bad press – both literally and figuratively. This negativity has been around for hundreds of years.

They don’t bite necks

Bats so often appear in horror films, as evil creatures of the night. Everybody knows about Dracula, in which blood-sucking vampires appear out of the dark crypts in the old haunted castles of Transylvania.

Actually, vampire bats do exist, but fear not, you will not find them in Malaysia.

They only occur in Central and South America, where they suck blood from horses and cattle. Like leeches, they do not harm their host. Their saliva contains an anti-coagulant so the bats can feed whilst the host remains unaware of their presence. I remember seeing a documentary which showed a close-up of a bat feeding from a cow’s leg, and the cow was totally oblivious.

Bats don’t get tangled in ladies’ hair, they don’t bite the necks of humans, and they are not unclean. Admittedly, they can carry rabies, but as the general public normally never comes into contact with bats, this is not a problem – rabid dogs probably present more of a danger.

Useful little creatures

Bats have many good points. They are very useful to us, especially for fruit lovers, as they help to pollinate bananas, durian and petai, which flower at night. They also aid in seed dispersal and propagation of some rain forest plants.

Bats help to control the insect population. They consume pests which would otherwise cause damage and spread disease.

In the Deer Cave in the Mulu National Park in Sarawak, an estimated one to two million bats live in that cave. Every night they fly out to feed. As each bat eats at least 10g of insects during a night of hunting, at least 10 tonnes of insects are consumed in a single night.

Can you imagine 10 tonnes of mosquitoes? This feeding results in a few tonnes of guano falling to the floor. Guano can be used as fertiliser.

In the days before modern fertilisers, guano was often used.

Medical researchers are now developing a drug which breaks down blood clots, which can be of great use to stroke victims and people suffering from thrombosis. The scientists are isolating a protein from the bat saliva which interferes with the process of blood clotting.

Villagers around the world have used bats for medicinal properties.

The following, according to V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers, is a local kampung cure for asthma and chest complaints : “Get some bats, take out their hearts and roast them until crisp. Then pound them and mix with your coffee and drink twice a day.”

Some Cambodians believe that fruit bat soup is a good cure for heart trouble and asthma.

There is a profitable trade in these winged mammals. The head is cut off for traditional medicine, the blood is mixed with rich alcohol, and the meat is used to make rice soup.

In one village in the Indian state of Maharashtra, bats are welcome for their therapeutic powers. All around temples are stalls selling bottles of bat oil which is supposed to work wonders against rheumatism and arthritis.

It’s made of bat’s fat and a small amount of blood mixed with coconut oil and camphor. A small amount of this ancient essence rubbed on the body is said to work wonders.

The incredible flying mammal

The bat god figured prominently in the mythology of many different cultures of Mexico more than 2,000 years ago. The bat, because of its association with the night and its silent flight, represented death.

Bats belong to the taxonomic order Chiroptera. Worldwide, there are more than 900 species of bats.

The United States is known to have 40 species of bats, whereas England only has 15. In Malaysia, there are about 100 species. There are two main types of bats, the insect feeders and the fruit bats.

Bats are the only mammals which can fly. Like many other mammals, they have fur, and give birth to live young. Individuals can live up to 20 years. Bats have been on the Earth for about 50 million years.

There is a popular saying “as blind as a bat”. In fact, bats are not blind. Fruit bats rely on their eyesight to navigate.

Insect-eating bats have very small eyes in comparison and navigate by echo location.

Bats are mainly nocturnal and hang upside down in their roosts. They roost in buildings, caves, hollow trees, foliage, crevices in rocks, and in spaces under the bark of trees. Some make tents out of the leaves of plants, others roost in the hollow stems of bamboo, having entered the stems through holes made by wood-boring beetles.

Many bats throughout the world roost in buildings and are often a considerable nuisance. Species that roost in caves, trees, or buildings often form huge colonies.

Flying foxes are the biggest bats, and sometimes can be seen hanging in trees where they roost, seemingly undisturbed by sunlight.

Sadly, their numbers are dwindling. Their populations have been decimated by habitat destruction, colony eradication by fruit growers, over-harvesting for human consumption and unregulated hunting (for food and sport).

Some species are becoming extinct and this could have adverse affects on the many bat-dependent plants and the ecosystems they support.

Save the bats

Bats need protection. Increased awareness of the vital role these bats play in the life cycle of commercially important plants is necessary.

In some countries, bats receive protection. For example, in England, all bats are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and there are heavy penalties for harming or even handling certain species.

In the US, 50% of its bat species are on the endangered list. However in Peninsular Malaysia, only flying foxes are partially protected under the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 but even these can still be hunted for food by those with a licence.

In Sarawak, all bats are protected. So remember that bats are actually our friends, and we need them in our ecosystem.

They will not harm you, so please do not harm them.

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