By Madalitso Mwaungulu – Bunda Environmental Club
Bats are one of the most misunderstood mammal species on the planet. This is as a result of various factors such as culture, myths, ignorance and religious beliefs.
In most African societies; bats are associated with witchcraft and superstition. This has made it very difficult to mainstream people into bat conservation and protection practices even though bats provide so many ecosystem services.
In Malawi, African Bat Conservation (ABC)led by Dr. Emma Stone is leading the conservation initiatives for this endangered creature.
Many species of bats offer unique and large scale monetary benefits to the agricultural industry which most people are not aware of.
For example, insectivorous bats help agro-ecosystems in controlling pests by foraging in pest populations.
Fruit bats help in seed dispersal as well as providing manure through guano (their droppings), mining and some fruit bats species also help in pollination of various flowers in the ecosystem.
Any simple threat to bat species could translate into a threat to the entire agro-ecosystem to a significant level.
Therefore a holistic and integrated approach in the way we manage landscape elements such as ecological corridors, forest cover patches, grazing grasslands as well as agricultural fields would so much benefit bat conservation as well as contractually contribute to food security.
Most bats are found in agro-ecosystems such as sugarcane plantations, maize and tea or coffee plantations, farm structure roofs and ceilings of buildings as well as different forest patches.
The relevance of Bats in our everyday life cannot be overemphasized, for an agro-based economy such as that of Malawi.
Both Fruit bats and Insectivorous bat species have different benefits to most of the agricultural crops that are grown in the country such as sugarcane, maize, soya beans and other legumes, tea, coffee, tobacco, mangoes, cashew, figs, balsa, kapok, bananas, dates and carob.
Starting with seed dispersal, insect population control, pest control as well as pollinators of more than 300 plant species, bats are amazing to keep around.
Another interesting fact about Insectivorous Bats is that a single adult Bat can consume up to 500 insects a single night including Malaria mosquitoes.
Pregnant and nursing bat mothers consume their body weight in insects each night.
Hence they reduce pest numbers in crop plantations, highly effective at reducing breeding mosquito populations, causing a 32% reduction in mosquito activity which means they can also be used to reduce Malaria occurrences.
In addition, Studies have shown that bats are vital for forest regeneration, by dropping seeds of half-even fruit or from seeds germinating from their droppings.
Bats are also relevant animals for environmental managers in that they act as bio-indicators. An indicator species is an organism whose presence, absence or abundance reflects a specific environmental condition.
Bats as indicator species can signal a change in an ecosystem, and so indicate the health of it.Bats are key indicator species in the environment as they arenocturnal, perform key ecosystem services, have a rich diversity, and that Bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects.
The major and common threat to Bats is roost loss, which in most cases is driven by deforestation. For example, Removal of larger older trees can deprive woodland of valuable roosting sites for bats.
Similarly, the removal of dead or decaying branches from trees can make them less attractive to bats. Many bats in Malawi occupy buildings as there are fewer and fewer trees, and these are disturbed by new development.
The use of timber treatment chemicals in roof spaces of buildings is also thought to have had a severe impact on some populations. The other threat is fear and prejudice, and, sometimes, genuine problems arising from the presence of bats in a building can also result in their destruction or exclusion.
Most people feel bats are a nuisance, but what they not aware of the iron behind the existing indirect benefits that bats present.
Another threat to bats is light pollution. This is coming in as a result of infrastructural development.Lights at night delay the emergence of some bat species, and delay the time it takes for the bats to fly to their feeding grounds.
Some species will feed around streetlights and benefit from the abundance of insects in one place, whilst others will lose out as insects move away from their more common feeding grounds.
Some species avoid lights altogether,which fragment their habitat and reduced the area where they can feed.
It is very sad to note that in various areas, bats are considered as bush meat. This is most cases fueled by cultural and superstitious beliefs. Bats are also killed to be used for herbal medicines.
A combination of inaccurate information coupled with perceived risks of damage or disease can lead to deliberate persecution of bats. For example different myths place bats as contributors to diseases such as Ebola.
But the fact remains that they would only transmit the virus if only there is contact or consumption of Bats. Which in this case contact is very unlikely. Bat roosts are fumigated if their presence in a house is unwanted.
Fruit bats are also killed if it is believed they are damaging fruit crops. Superstition can lead people to kill individual bats that they find. Bats are believed to be a pest species like rats and mice.
The reason there are all these threats to bats in Malawi is that bats have no legal protection in Malawi, which means that pest exterminators can carry out a removal of a roost on request.
There are no specific laws or policies that look into conserving and preserving bat populations. Most are general policies to deal with wildlife hence bats are mostly abused due to their nature.
It is high time there is more bat research in the country in order to curb the issue of agricultural pests.
This could encourage non-use of pesticides and other chemicals which further destroys our environment and their toxicological components threaten human life.
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