The first public-education program for bat conservation in Bangladesh faced a daunting task. Hardly anyone in the country knew actual facts about bats and most despised them as dirty, useless pests of farms and fruit orchards – even crops that benefit from bats’ pollination, seed dispersal and insect control. And on top of such myths and misinformation, fruit bats are identified as the animal host for the feared Nipah virus.
My colleagues and I at the new nonprofit Group for Conservation and Research on Bats (GCRB) were determined to begin changing those attitudes and build a sustainable education program in Bangladesh. With support from BCI’s Global Grassroots Conservation Fund, we introduced public-awareness programs in six areas, each within six miles (10 kilometers) of a known bat roost.
Bangladesh is home to at least 33 bat species. The largest and most commonly seen is the big Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus), a fruit-eating bat that roosts in tall trees. Our bats face an assortment of threats, including habitat loss due to deforestation and climate change, hunting for food and medicine and collisions with the fishnets that are often used to protect orchards, plus casual persecution and killing. Little is known about the biology of the bats of Bangladesh, and few support their conservation.
The magnitude of our challenge became clear as we surveyed 300 people (both urban and rural) in our study areas to determine their knowledge and attitudes about bats. We used the responses in crafting our education message.
Eighty-eight percent of our respondents said bats are blind, 67 percent consider them dirty animals that both eat and defecate with their mouths, and 56 percent said they are egg-laying birds. Worse, 89 percent believed bats are pests that have only a negative impact on crops, while 79 percent said bats play no role in the environment.
Surprisingly, only 29 percent of those surveyed saw bats as a potential source of disease, yet 55 percent knew that drinking palm sap only after it has been boiled can prevent Nipah-related encephalitis. The Nipah virus, currently limited to South Asia and perhaps Africa, can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and respiratory problems.
The World Health Organization reports that flying foxes are the primary animal host for the virus. Bangladesh accounts for most Nipah-related disease, with 188 cases (146 of them fatal) reported since 2001. Bangladesh and U.S. health officials attribute about half of those to human-to-human viral transmission. They blame the rest primarily on the rural custom of drinking raw date-palm sap, which can be contaminated by Indian flying foxes while it is being collected.
Health experts say the virus is readily destroyed – and the disease prevented – by boiling the sap before drinking it. The government has undertaken a mass-awareness campaign urging Bangladeshis to boil the palm sap. Our survey suggests this effort is having an impact, but the government has ignored bats’ ecological and economic benefits during this campaign. This makes our education program even more necessary and urgent. Our initial target districts include several that have faced Nipah outbreaks.
Using what we learned from our questionnaires, we developed outreach and educational materials in the native language of Bangla. These focused on the valuable role of bats, the threats they face in Bangladesh and what can we do, at little cost, to protect our bats. We printed and distributed brochures, species cards and posters. We also produced “rally caps,” paper hats with the message, “Save the Bat/Safe the World,” that proved very popular with schoolchildren.
Over the past year, we presented a three-hour education program at 15 high schools and primary schools, 10 of them in cities and 5 in the countryside. These programs began with a short presentation, including PowerPoint displays where electricity was available, that described key features and benefits of bats. Then the children were led through such fun activities as a drawing competition, a bat-facts quiz and “bat math,” a bit of arithmetic built around bats and insects. A final questionnaire showed a dramatic increase in knowledge and appreciation of bats.
We took our outreach efforts to a variety of villages, targeting especially farmers, orchard owners and hunters. We shared our brochures and our message about the value of bats and bat conservation. We worked to convince orchardists to use less-lethal alternatives to the fishing nets many use to protect their fruit from bats. Large numbers of flying foxes crash into these nets, becoming so entangled they can’t escape on their own. Left hanging helplessly in the nets, they starve to death. We desperately need to develop an inexpensive, but effective, alternative to these nets.
Given that hunting flying foxes is generally illegal, we had a hard time locating hunters to educate. We eventually reached 13 hunters, and they mostly accepted the importance of bats, although they would not agree to give up their profession. We will continue these efforts.
Among other projects during our initial year, we had information booths and education programs for visitors to the Chittagong Zoo and the popular Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park. For the first time, a bat-education stall was staffed at the Bangladesh Department of Livestock’s annual Agricultural Fair in Chittagong, as we described the need for bat conservation to a wide range of farmers and ranchers. We even won a second-place prize for our presentation. We also staged a Year of the Bat rally and seminar at the Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (CVASU).
In one of our most promising successes of this past year, we conducted a capacity-building workshop for 20 select college students to enhance their interest in bat research and conservation. We trained these volunteers in very basic biology and in identifying bat roosting sites. After the training program, they conducted what we believe to be the first bat-population survey in Bangladesh. Population estimates and GPS location data were forwarded to our group.
These students identified a total of 71 roosts of Indian flying foxes. Most consist of small populations (fewer than 500 bats), but we also identified five sites that each host more than 1,500 flying foxes.
Historically, these bats roosted in much larger numbers in fig or “bot” trees. Following years of deforestation, however, they now have shifted mostly to smaller trees and vegetation, especially bamboo and koroi and eucalyptus trees, often in close proximity to towns and villages.
These young, enthusiastic volunteers can, with continuing support, form the heart of a new bat research and conservation community in Bangladesh.
During our first year of systematic bat education, we reached more than 2,000 people in our six study areas. Now we must find the funding to improve and expand this program into other districts so that we will, one day, be protecting bats throughout the country. Much remains to be done for the bats of Bangladesh, but at least the challenges seem less daunting now.
NURUL ISLAM, a student at the Veterinary Medicine in Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University of Bangladesh, has been working with the Group for Conservation and Research of Bats since 2009.
The author gratefully acknowledges the enthusiastic volunteers who made this project possible, as well as invaluable CVASU instructors Dr. Masuduzzaman, Dr. Ahasanul Haque, Dr. Mahmudul Hassan, Dr. Shahneaz Ali Khan and Dr. Amir Hossan.