Racing to save Critically Endangered bats in their only known roost.
In the state of Karnataka, India—an area in the southwest part of the country that makes up 6% of its landmass and is home to more than 68 million residents—a perilously small colony of Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats (Hipposideros hypophyllus) lives in a small cave. It is within sight of a small village named Hanumanahalli, in the district of Kolar. It is an area where 150 to 250 small bats half the size of a person’s palm might have gone unnoticed and been lost forever.
Distinguished by a leaf-like facial feature, Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats are one of more than 70 species of a genus of Old World Leaf-Nosed bats, and are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Fossils of leaf-nosed bats date back millions of years, but how long Kolar bats have been hanging around India is anyone’s guess. In the 1980s, a bat biologist and a virologist may have been the first researchers to come across the bats, but they didn’t know what they had until years later. In 1994, they completed the process of documenting a new species and reported colonies of Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats in two caves.
Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats look as if a monochromatic, multi-petal flower has been smashed onto the tip of their noses. Notably, the concave pushed-in configuration serves as both a satellite dish and a megaphone to amplify the bats’ echolocation abilities, according to researcher Aditya Srinivasulu. “Extraordinary echolocation gives these bats aerobatic flying maneuvers. They often swoop low across shrublands, sometimes two to three feet off the ground, to quickly scoop up their insect prey,” says Aditya. “Plus, their chompers are perfect for biting through hard-shelled insects.”
Aditya is one of the lucky few to witness Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats up close. His mother and father, Dr. Bhargavi and Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, are both zoologists who have been at the forefront of obtaining Critically Endangered status for the bats and winning over local residents to protect the bats’ single cave. Adiyta, now 23, has witnessed and participated in his parents’ research for over a decade.
In 2013, Bhargavi and three other researchers went looking for Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats using a 1994 paper that established the species as their guide. They easily located one of the reported caves, but didn’t find any Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats living in the cave. They moved on to the village of Hanumanahalli and were stymied. They couldn’t find the cave they were looking for, so they started asking the villagers if they had seen bats in the area, before one elderly resident guided them to a granite hill on the outskirts of the village.
There the hill stood, a low-rising brownish and grayish monolith, sparsely vegetated, with agricultural crops and much taller hills nearby. Once they started getting whiffs of guano, they knew the cave entrance was nearby. They found the narrow crack into the cave behind two slabs of stone. The following night, they set up barely perceptible mist nets to safely capture bats as they left the cave for their evening meal. They were rewarded, confirming Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats in the cave, along with other bat species.
Bhargavi’s team was elated and extremely worried. The hill was an active illegal stone quarry. Without permission from the district’s governing officials, granite miners were blast-mining the hillside to send truckloads of granite to a megalopolis of nearby cities to build roads and other infrastructure. Some of the miners resorted to drilling holes in the hillside, stuffing the holes with hay, and setting the hay on fire to warm and break the rock into transportable pieces. These practices all threatened the last remaining colony of the bats.
As Bhargavi, Chelmala, and colleagues conducted research and published scientific papers, a small shrine of rocks piled on top of the cave’s hillside became all-important to the conservation of the Kolar Leaf-nosed Bats. The shrine—which marks the spot where Sita, the Hindu goddess of Earth, found refuge—became part of their conversations with the locals.
“In India, bats can mean several things. Good omens or bad omens,” says Bhargavi, who notes some people believe bats hanging from the ceilings of temples are old souls doing their penance.
When Bhargavi and her family began meeting with the village residents, many people associated a drought in the area with being out of favor with Sita. “When we talked about saving the bats, many people connected the drought with Sita’s disfavor and took an interest in saving the bats. They got behind stopping the illegal mining. And, coincidence or not, the rains came back and their crops are thriving,” Bhargavi says.
While governing authorities in the district have stopped mining in the area, the bigger picture is eventually achieving permanent legal protection under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, which provides legislative authority to create new national parks and other layers of conservation areas in India. Chelmala says their ultimate success is dependent on continued data collection and monitoring.
“Bat conservation is dependent on data, data, data,” he says, adding, “We also must, of course, show our respect for local people and their beliefs.”