A Global Journey to Understand The Truth About Bats

People’s perceptions of bats matter. It is my hope that more people understand the true nature of bats and their importance to us. I made a short documentary summarizing what I learned called, “The Truth About Bats.” The film will be shown at the online Wildlife Conservation Film Festival 2020. Please watch it and share it as far as you can. Bats need your help.”

Emily Stanford - Filmmaker and Bat Conservationist​​

From August 2018-2019, I traveled solo to nine countries to explore one question: How do cultural perceptions of bats influence bat conservation?

I quite literally fell into my interest with bats two years prior, when I tripped over a bat hole in the forest floor in Peru. After I got over my initial fear of the bats that lived there, I became curious and began researching facts about them. I was blown away by what I learned- who knew that bats pollinate bananas? Or that some species can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in a night. In fact, several crops depend on bats for pollination and seed dispersal. We wouldn’t have tequila, mangoes, guavas, macadamia nuts, durian, or many other food crops without bats. Additionally, bats save U.S. Agriculture economy an estimated $23 billion a year by controlling pest insect populations. Not only are bats incredibly helpful creatures, but they are also surprisingly very cute. (If you have never googled “Baby Bat Burrito” you should do so now.) Researching made me realize how wrong my initial perception of bats as evil vampires had been; and it also made me realize that bats are in trouble. Bat populations are in serious decline in almost every place where they have been investigated. I wanted to learn what was threatening them and how much our perceptions play into those threats.

Emily Stanford - The Truth About Bats

This led me to design a proposal for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship which funded my project. I decided to travel to Fiji, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Malawi, and Madagascar, to meet and live with both bat lovers and bat haters, in order to learn about their motives, opinions, and beliefs.

During the year, I volunteered with bat rehabilitators and conservation groups, I conversed with politicians and farmers, and I lived among bat hunting tribes and villages. I joined hunting expeditions, I helped collect bat guano for sale, I listened to folktales, and I interviewed all kinds of people, from those who share their homes with bats to those who actively persecute them.

This journey took me into deep caves, through jungles, down waterfalls, and into some of the most remote areas on the planet, where I was often one of the first foreigners’ people had seen. I learned how to approach strangers, how to make friends with people that I couldn’t speak with, how to use body language to communicate, how to avoid scams and unwanted marriage proposals, how to navigate transport systems, how to deal with uncertainty of not knowing where I would sleep that night or when I could get a meal. I learned to be completely adaptable, to trust my gut, and I learned a great deal about hospitality. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were keen to have me as their guest. I often slept on the floor, or with the whole family in one room. I had so many humbling experiences that left me filled with gratitude, awe, and wonder.

I was learning new life lessons daily. But I was also learning a great deal about bats and why most people fear them. I heard a range of crazy myths like: “bats will come and catch your nose”, “bats eat smoke”, “bats are witches”, “bats come down and slap people”, “bat pee makes people go blind”, “bats have diseases…I don’t know which, but I know they kill children…” (While bats, like all animals, do carry diseases, the risk of getting a disease from a bat is incredibly small if you are not touching it.)

Emily Stanford - The Truth About Bats

Bats are nocturnal creatures that most people will never see up close; so, it is easy to misunderstand and to fear them. Once you shed light on bats, they become much less fearsome. Many bat rehabilitators told me that once people see bats up close, their apprehensions about bats melt away and their perceptions completely change.

I talked to many experts about the best way to change people’s opinions of bats. Several of them claim that we need to focus on education; that the public needs to learn about how bats are helpful to us. However, learning that bats are important pollinators etc. is not necessarily always emotive enough. There must be some kind of personal attachment in order to make people appreciate, value, and want to protect them.

After finishing a year of exploring this topic, I now believe that the number one threat to bat populations is our failure to understand them. If we do not understand them, we will not appreciate them, and we will not care to protect them from the many threats they face, such as habitat loss, disturbance, wind turbines, and persecution. In the words of bat conservation expert Dr. Merlin Tuttle, “People will not protect what they fear.” You cannot solve wildlife conservation problems without considering and addressing people’s needs and concerns.

With the emergence of COVID-19, we are seeing just how important the public perceptions of bats really are. All across the world, there have been reports of fearful people going out and slaughtering and burning bats in misguided attempts to reduce the chances of disease outbreak. While the people doing this should not be demonized, their harmful efforts are counterproductive. Research has proven that culling animals in an attempt to control disease often results in an increase in disease outbreaks. And experts have warned that attempting to do the same with bats could exacerbate the problem.

Furthermore, the current evidence linking bats to COVID-19 is speculative. Yet bats have received almost unanimous blame from the media. Articles frequently take the risk of diseases from bats out of context and out of proportion, resulting in fear-inducing headlines that perpetuate persecution of bats that make up a quarter of all mammal species globally.

Several articles claim that “bats have been found to have more viruses than other animal groups” but if you investigate deeper, you see a different story. One particular study that is frequently cited in these headlines did indeed find more viruses in bats than in other animal groups, but they also sampled twice as many bats as all other types of animals surveyed combined. (See Table 1 Below).

Global patterns in coronavirus diversity

Naturally, the researchers found more in bats because they searched more. In the words of Dr. Merlin Tuttle, “more viruses have been found in bats than in less-surveyed species, so biased speculation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t yet know if bats have more viruses than other animals because we haven’t similarly sampled others. And even if bats do have more, the number of viruses isn’t necessarily indicative of transmission risk. Many viruses are innocuous or possibly even beneficial.

Even if bats are found to be the source of the virus, humans who were (and still are) taking wild animals out of their environments and locking them in unsanitary and unregulated conditions led to the disease crossing over to a human host. It is our fault, not theirs. Yet bats are the ones paying for our mistake with their lives and we will suffer as a result by losing the benefits they bring.

Hurting bats hurts us. Not only are bats crucial for our ecosystems and our economies, but bats also help reduce transmission of malaria, dengue, and other mosquito-borne diseases by eating mosquitoes.

Additionally, bats also have uniquely long lifespans for animals of their size, and they usually give birth to only one pup-year, so their populations take longer to recover than other animals.

-Emily Stanford

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