India's population grew to more than one billion people as the new millennium began. Within a few decades, it is expected to surpass China and become the most populous country the world has ever seen. With one-third the land area of the United States, India has nine times the human density. So many people cannot help but leave a broad and deep footprint on the landscape.
Conservation biology in India must always be evaluated in the context of its impact on both wildlife and humans. The challenge of providing basic necessities for this enormous population is daunting, and it is increasingly difficult to justify conservation of natural resources in the face of abject poverty, hunger, and the desperate need for more space. The habitat available for flora and fauna is decreasing at an astonishing rate, leaving many tiny fragments like life rafts adrift in a sea of humanity.
Against this backdrop, the future of India's bats — and conservation biology in general — might seem hopelessly bleak. Yet there is hope. This hope arises not from the nation's leaders and policymakers, but from the people: the nongovernment organizations and the many grassroots groups that champion the cause of sustainable development and the preservation of natural habitats.
These groups range from international entities all the way down to diffuse networks in small towns and villages. More than a thousand such groups exist in India, and most are intimately involved in local and regional issues. They hunger for information. Education forms the core for many of them; they are eager not only to learn about organisms and their ecological roles, but also to disseminate this information to others. For too long, we have emphasized a top-down approach. While this has met with limited success, recent trends strongly suggest that the future lies at the grass roots.
South Asia has 123 species of bats, and almost all of them reside in India. They account for one-fourth of India's mammal fauna and more than one-tenth of the world's bat species.
Bats' role in pollination, seed dispersal, and pest control remains mostly undocumented, although their economic benefits must be enormous in a largely agrarian country like India.
Bats in India face catastrophic loss of habitat, which decreases foraging areas, reduces prey populations, and often forces bats to live in and around human habitations. This proximity to humans, especially when such structures as temples, tunnels, and archaeological ruins are used as roosts, often create the gravest threats to bat populations.
In response, Bat Conservation International has been working for two decades to help protect India's bats and their habitats. An early victory came in 1987, when BCI Scientific Advisor M.K. Chandrashekaran and BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle helped convince officials to cancel quarrying leases that would have destroyed vital bat caves in Samanar Hill in southern India. BCI also collaborated with Chandrashekaran to produce a hugely successful exhibit and a Bats of India publication.
Several young scientists, including the author a decade ago, received BCI Student Research Scholarships for work in India. And BCI's Global Grassroots Conservation Fund has given several recent grants that support local bat-conservation projects.
In 1972, India instituted the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) to protect its fauna from indiscriminate harm. Ironically, one of the categories (Schedule V) created by this act explicitly identifies fruit bats, along with rats and mice, as vermin —totally without protection. Insectivorous bats fared better simply because they were not mentioned at all.
For nearly 20 years, individuals and organizations, including BCI, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), Madurai Kamaraj University, and the Zoo Outreach Organization (ZOO) have been lobbying the federal government to remove fruit bats from Schedule V and give them some protection. BCI members and scientific advisors launched three separate letter-writing campaigns urging this change.
A revision of the Wildlife Protection Act has been under way for several years, and increasing pressure has been applied to change the status of bats. In the most promising development yet, the Ministry of Environment and Forests last September approved adding two bat species to Schedule I, which mandates the greatest protection. The additions took effect April 1.
One newly protected species is the small Salim Ali's fruit bat (Latidens salimalii), which was known from just one location in southern India until very recently. It has now been discovered at three more sites in two additional southern states. This bodes well for a species that was believed to be exceptionally rare and endangered. In an ironic twist that can happen only when bureaucrats make scientific decisions, the generic classification of “fruit bats” still remains in Schedule V. Thus, Latidens has the dubious distinction of having the highest level of protection while still being classified as vermin.
The other protected species is Wroughton's free-tailed bat (Otomops wroughtoni), an insectivore that had been known in just one cave in southern India. Repeated surveys of this cave, starting almost a century ago, indicate the population has changed very little, remaining at just 40 to 100 bats. This roost is threatened by possible dam construction in the area, as well as by human activity and specimen collection.
The good news is that Otomops was recently found in Meghalaya (in northeastern India) and in Myanmar, suggesting a much broader distribution.
Achieving most-protected status for these two bat species is a small but very significant step forward. It is an achievement that would not have been possible without the dedicated and persistent support of scientists and conservation groups around the world.
The next extremely difficult goal is to remove all fruit bats from the vermin category and to create awareness of the ecological and economic benefits of insectivorous species.
Meanwhile, progress is being made on the scientific and educational front. In 1997, a Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) workshop was held in Bangalore, India, to assign conservation status to each of 400 mammal species in India, including more than 100 bats. As a result of this workshop, an unprecedented network was formed to encourage and promote the study and conservation of bats in India.
The Chiroptera Conservation and Information Network of South Asia (CCINSA) has nearly 100 scientific members. Its creation was spearheaded by Sally Walker at ZOO and BCI Scientific Advisor G. Marimuthu at Madurai Kamraj University. They have done an outstanding job in organizing workshops, as well as producing Web sites, newsletters, and educational material for schools. Walker's efforts have been supported by a pair of BCI Global Grassroots grants beginning in 2001.
In January 2002, a second CAMP workshop, cosponsored by BCI, reevaluated India's bats and expanded the scope to cover neighboring nations of South Asia. Forty-three bat experts from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar spent five days evaluating 120 species and concluded that fully one-fourth of bat species in South Asia are endangered or vulnerable.
Protecting the bats of India requires action on multiple fronts and at all levels. Grassroots education is vital and needs significant support. Low-cost educational materials, such as those produced by ZOO, for distribution to local groups throughout the nation are crucial in educating the public about the beneficial role of bats in the ecosystem.
Much greater emphasis should be placed on the role of insectivorous bats in aiding agriculture through pest reduction. Support for studies that examine their feeding habits and expand public awareness should be a high priority. Lastly, as always, the government needs to be constantly encouraged to remove fruit bats from its vermin category and to protect these highly beneficial creatures.
By the year 2050, India will have a population of 1.5 billion. The conservation challenges that lie ahead make those of the twentieth century pale by comparison. But we are making progress and the cause is far from lost.