On a plane from Atlanta to Philadelphia a few weeks ago, a woman sitting by me was reading to her fidgety daughter. The book was Stellaluna by Janell Cannon, the beautifully written and illustrated 1993 children’s book about a baby fruit bat separated from, then reunited with, her mother. As the woman finished the book, sensing I was listening along, she turned to me and said, “You know, I had forgotten what a wonderful book that is.”
Many of us feel that way about bats. Every bat has – no, is a story – we are eager to read. As the saying goes, when a species goes extinct, it’s as though a book has been burned before anyone has read it. Perhaps it was 101 Elephant Jokes, but how do we know it wasn’t War and Peace?
Bats as a whole perform hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of insect control, forest regeneration and plant pollination, but aside from intrinsic moral arguments for preventing extinctions, who knows which species of bat holds its ecosystem together, or is key to deeper understanding of the human brain, immune system or longevity (bats, like people, live very long lives)? Bats have already given us important medications and great insight into the development and perfection of sonar.
Yet we know so little. I can’t tell you, for instance, where the 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats of Bracken Cave go every winter because the technology does not yet exist to track small bats by satellite across long distances. Nor can anyone tell us how many species of bats exist: 30 new species were identified just last year, bringing the total to 1,293 – nearly a fourth of Earth’s mammal species.
Stellaluna, you may recall, is partly about tolerance: she lives for a while with a family of birds, and she and the birds come to appreciate their differences while remaining friends. But the book has also helped a generation of children and parents become more tolerant of bats. We need such messages. Bats remain widely persecuted or hunted in many cultures. Myths abound. A young bat scientist from West Africa recently said she is periodically asked if she’s a witch. Fear of bats as vectors of disease, not without basis, is often far out of proportion to reality and leads to their indiscriminate eradication.
But the biggest threat to bats, and virtually all species, is loss of habitat. We’re finding so many new bat species partly because the world’s most remote natural areas are no longer remote. Fear of bats and disease is growing partly because of increasing human encroachment into their habitats. White-nose Syndrome attacks bats directly, but the non-native soil fungus that causes it, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has contaminated almost every cave in eastern and central North America, rendering those precious habitats unfit for hibernation.
BCI is increasingly focused on saving bats by conserving their habitats. In coming months we’ll be announcing new initiatives to accelerate the conservation of bats around the world. Preventing further extinctions and protecting areas with high numbers of species – global hotspots for bats – will count among our chief priorities.
There are many more books on bats these days, and not just for children. Interest and knowledge of bats are expanding rapidly, but their conservation remains well behind that of other animals and plants. BCI and its partners are going to see that changes.
Andrew B. Walker