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Mihika Jindal

Bangalore’s dark knights are the heroes bats need and deserve

Bat harvest by the Bomrr tribe.

The very phrase "wildlife conservation" reminds us of prominent endangered species such as tigers, dolphins and migratory birds; those who already have or those who would soon be going the way of the dodo. But the Bat Conservation India Trust (BCIT), a non-profit organisation, focuses to protect possibly the least popular and most misunderstood mammal of all: the bat.

Rajesh Puttaswamaiah, founder of BCIT, is a lawyer who has studied breeding behaviour in birds since he was nine years old: "I have been watching wildlife up close and, after spending over a decade following birds and animals in their natural habitats, I chanced upon a cave that housed a huge colony of bats. It hit me then that not many wildlife enthusiasts spoke about or documented their lives." Indeed, the information we have on bats is limited at best, and there is, therefore, substantial scope for study and research in this field.

Nocturnal creatures almost always come up in conversation for all the wrong reasons. We seem suspicious of them, and we have the movies to thank for that. But research has proven that they aren't out to get you, which has given BCIT a legitimate reason to conduct talks, screen documentaries and field visits, through which they attempt to wipe out misconceptions and myths.

Run by Puttaswamaiah and co-founder Chaitra Ramaiah, a computer engineer, along with a group of researchers and volunteers, their challenges begin with inaccessible caves and ruins where most bats roost. "Thanks to my training in rock climbing, I can reach remote roost sites, which can seem dangerous to most others," asserts Puttaswamaiah.

Even when one reaches the cave, it's difficult to keep the bats calm because they panic and fly off at the slightest disturbance. "We have to be exceptionally quiet and make sure that the bats feel comfortable in our presence," he says. But even when both sides begin to feel comfortable in each other's presence, recording their activities is a massive task as they always perch in pitch dark spots, for which BCIT has acquired special equipment such as infrared cameras and recorders that can record in absolute darkness.

It may come as something of a surprise to many, but these flying mammals are not interested in wrapping themselves around your face and gouging your eyes out or shape-shifting into blood-sucking vampires. On the contrary, they are integral to and assist the ecosystem exactly like birds—the only difference is that they like to hang out at night. While fruit-eating bats are effective pollinators and seed dispersers, those that feed on insects are competent pest controllers. But because their behavioural patterns don't suit our waking hours, we misinterpret their efforts. So much so that bats are categorised as "vermin" under the Wildlife Protection Act, implying that people can hunt bats without the fear of penalty. "At the cost of sounding ambitious, I want to get bats covered under the ambit of Wildlife Protection Act, which will accord legal protection to them and their habitat," says Puttaswamaiah.

Superstition and urban legends make it even tougher to bridge the gap between ignorance and fact. The Bomrr tribe in Nagaland, for instance, has an annual bat harvest festival—they smoke up caves heavily populated with bats and consume their meat. If they don't, old wives will tell them, their souls will not be accepted by their ancestors. This peculiar practice is typical to this tribe, which has exclusive access to these caves. According to official data, there's been a rapid depletion of the bats in these caves as the count has dropped from 60,000 to 2,000 in about three years. "It is BCIT's endeavour to stop this practice through community conservation programs and by providing alternate benefits to the community," says Puttuswamaiah. After a series of discussions and negotiations, the tribe has so far agreed to control the harvest in exchange for a sponsorship for their village school and a community hall.

Other inconvenient non-truths include a spate of bad luck if you spot a bat during the day,; and if one enters your house, beware, it's probably been sent by a ghost. In some parts of India, bats are killed for their alleged medicinal value. Live bats are thrown in boiling water and the body fat is used as oil to cure an anaemic person. These countless myths pushed the BCIT to team up with eminent wildlife cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty to create comic strips for dispelling the myths.

Puttaswamaiah is gravely concerned about the running down of natural habitats where the bats roost. Excessive quarrying activities, urbanisation and hunting are proving to be a genuine threat to the bat colonies and need to be addressed. The BCIT, still in its nascent stage, is optimising limited resources to churn out the best results. Their efforts and initiatives so far have been acknowledged and appreciated by organisations across the world. The BCIT team hopes to bring the bats to the "mainstream" so that their survival may be considered in the same light (no, not literally) as that of the rest of the animal kingdom.

Contact BCIT at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to contribute.

 
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