From Zambia to Texas, there are many places across the globe where tourists can take a front-row seat to one of nature's most dazzling displays.
When it comes to bats, theres no better place than Texas.
With a total of between 15 and 20 million bat residents, Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, may well be the bat capital of the world.
Every night, many millions of little winged creatures awaken and spiral out from the cave, filling the skies with a fluttering swarm of Mexican free-tailed bats. Located some 20 miles from downtown San Antonio, Bracken Cave houses both the largest bat colony in existence, and one of the largest congregations of mammals on the planet.
Nearby Austin is also pretty experienced in all things bat-related. Around 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats have taken roost in the nooks and crannies of the citys Congress Avenue Bridge, creating the worlds largest urban bat colony. Crowds gather on the bridge every evening to soak up beautiful night views of the colony as they loop overhead, hungrily hunting for an evening meal.
Texas may be a bat hotspot, but it is not alone. Large colonies exist across the worldincluding Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico (whose trees, cliffs, and caverns house a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats), Zambias Kasanka National Park (where swamp forests house five million migratory fruit bats), Borneos Gunung Mulu National Park (where some of the largest cave chambers in the world contain up to 3.5 million wrinkle-lipped bats), Cairns in Queensland, Australia (home to a huge number of spectacled flying foxes, one of the largest bat species), and Spandau Citadel in Berlin, Germany (some 11,000 bats live in the cityone the largest bat colonies in Europe).
Such large bat colonies provide far more than mere batty bragging rights. For example, its thought that over 100,000 people visit Austins Congress Avenue Bridge annually to see the bats in flight. These bat tourists are estimated to bring in a significant ten million dollars in tourism revenue each year.
The link between conservation and tourism is one that, while not spoken about as often and loudly as others, is highly valuable; the revenue brought in by bat-watchers can be used directly to further conservation efforts, and indirectly provides a strong incentive to maintain a resident bat population. Bat populations worldwide are on the decline, making such conservation efforts that much more important.
This is heightened by the fact that many bat species are keystone species, meaning that they play a disproportionately large and important role in their ecological communities. Protecting a bat community can, therefore, also protect a whole host of others as a knock-on effect (some of which may be struggling or threatened).
Bat tourism acts as an unrivalled channel to educate the public about bats, and soothe any fears. Bats suffer from an unfair reputation, with many perceiving them as aggressive and disease-ridden and persecuting them accordinglybut in actual fact they are gentle, sophisticated, and hugely beneficial to have around. They act as natural pest control, gobbling up crop-destroying and backyard pests, and help to pollinate local plant species. Perhaps importantly for holidaymakers, one of their dietary choices is an insect renowned for its irritating bite and ability to spread diseasethe mosquito! When huge populations of bats head out to hunt, as in San Antonio or Austin, they can eat a significant amount, devouring up to half their body weight in insects in a single night.
Encouraging people to experience the unique wonder of bats taking flight helps to diminish the stigma and misinformation around this much-maligned animal. All sides benefit; bat tourism furthers the cause of bat conservation advocates such as BCI and helps bats thrive, brings in revenue to a bat colonys resident area, and allows tourists to witness one of the greatest sights in nature: millions of bats taking flight simultaneously.
Unlike many other natural phenomena (especially in the animal world!), the experience is near-guaranteed; bat colonies such as the colossal one at Bracken Cave reliably emerge every night.
It was more than I ever imagined, said Jackie Leigh Harding Harris of Little Rock, Arkansas, a visitor to Bracken Cave in mid-June 2017. I was there for three emergences, each one being different. I truly wish I could have stayed out until 6:30 the next morning, as many of the bats did!
I chose Bracken because its said to be one of the largest bat populations, and of course this gave myself and my travel partner the opportunity to see Texas, she added, describing the visit as a new and enlightening adventure. Ill continue to see if bats can be part of any future trips I take.
For more information on bat viewing sites, see BCI’s interactive map here.