The Echo

Balancing Bats and Divine Beings

Published on October 17, 2017
Written by Michelle Z. Donahue

Cave research in eastern India is examining how religious tourism can co-exist with important bat habitat.
Hipposideros galeritus
Tourists visiting to  a cave at Guteswar. Courtesy of Subrat Debata

After finishing up his doctoral work studying the diversity and distribution of bats in the state of Odisha in eastern India, Subrat Debata made a few phone calls to friends and former teachers. He was looking for some new leads on places he could continue his studies on cave bats.

That’s what led him to Gupteswar, an area in Odisha known for its collection of five sacred caves. Thousands of tourists visit annually, in search of the shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva within the main cave. Gupteswar, or the “hidden god,” refers to the massive limestone formation secreted away in the cave; Debata’s colleagues suggested he investigate the possible impacts of the booming tourist trade on the populations of bats that dwell in close proximity to the stone lingam and in the other four caves.

By the end of August 2017, Debata recorded eight species of bats living in Gupteswar’s five caves, including two nationally threatened species, the rufous horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus rouxii) and Cantor’s roundleaf bat (Hipposideros galeritus).

Since 2015, Debata has been documenting which bats are living in the caves, tallying their numbers as best as possible, and talking with residents and tourists about bats. A major prong of his current work is focusing on developing strategies with local partners which protect the cave’s bats, but which also do not harm the economically valuable tourism value of the site. His work in the past year was supported in part by a grant from BCI.

Hipposideros galeritus
Nationally Threatened Hipposideros galeritus with a pup at Gupteswar
Cave tourism site. Courtesy of Subrat Debata

On a normal day, 30 to 40 people might come through at a time, with significantly increased traffic during religious festivals. Confronted with such disturbance, the bats, which Debata said primarily roost at the entryways of the caves, would move about restlessly, flying from one perch to another during the day. Some would leave, seeking out quieter resting areas.

When questioning the village residents about their knowledge of the bats in the caves, Debata was told that it seemed the numbers of bats living in the caves has declined as tourism has increased, though there’s no hard data to support the observation.

The area was settled only several hundred years ago, and for the last 300 years, perhaps only a hundred or two visitors might venture into the caves. But last year alone, Debata counted 15,492 visitors to the cave complex, and visitors can go anywhere in the caves, at any time; the area lacks a formal visitor schedule or gates to close the caves off.

Importantly, though, Debata’s surveys revealed that the locals viewed their caves’ bats in a positive light.

“Many people living around the caves believe that if they respect the god, then they also respect the animals that choose to live there,” Debata said. “They believe that if they harm the animals, they’ll upset the god. So they are protective of the bats in their own place—even though they kill bats from other places to eat.”

Bats roosting inside Gupteswar caves
Bats roosting inside Gupteswar caves. Courtesy of Subrat Debata

In a report from his 2017 work, Debata quoted local resident Gupta Durua, who said, “We do not practice or encourage anybody to harm or kill the animals that shelter near God’s place.”

Debata also found that tourists seem to be well aware of the importance of bats in the caves, and understand that they provide important pest control for croplands. But they dislike their pungent smell and the guano they leave in the caves.

Despite the positive outlook, locals are loath to diminish their main source of revenue for the benefit of roughly 900 bats; the region where they live affords precious few economic opportunities. So Debata has been working to split the difference: by installing signage to help people understand what their impact on the cave and its bats are, and by working towards temporary closures of the caves during the sensitive breeding season, he hopes to find a solution that allows tourism to continue without undue harm to the bats.

Though his work continues, Debata did succeed in having informational signboards installed outside the caves. He also enlisted the help of several priests, who perform ceremonies and guide visitors through caves, to talk to pilgrims about keeping a respectful distance from bat roosting sites to try and avoid disturbing them. He continues to negotiate with the tourism council on solutions for regulating the flow of people through visiting hours and seasonal closures.

Subrat Debata
Subrat Debata with project volunteers and local preist.
Courtesy of Tuhinanshu Kar

“As I would be in the caves, the people would ask me: why are you doing this, going into the cave, photographing the bats, talking about bats with us?” Debata said. “I tried to help them understand that my job is to work for wildlife and biodiversity, and that the bats’ conservation is directly related to their benefit. They gradually came to understand that bats are very much more important than they realized.”