Protecting a taxon with a bad reputation

The world has changed tremendously in the last few months and bats are in the spotlights. It is still difficult to assess how people’s views on bats will change on the long-term, but a decrease in appreciation and increase in persecution is currently clearly notable. Bat conservationists around the world have started with putting additional effort into outreach activities as so to inform people about how to live wisely with bats, that bats are not the ones to blame (really!)and that a world without bats would be bad for us. These online outreach activities likely reach a broad audience, but what about communities which do not necessarily have access to these channels? How to reach them in this COVID-19 time and how to mitigate fears and worries around bats? Luckily there are conservation champions out there who can speak to ‘their own people and in their own language’.

One of these champions is Rohit Chakravarty, a bat researcher and conservationist who does many outreach activities in his home country India.

We asked Rohit three questions to explore the current predicament bats are in from his perspective.

Wildlife Research: Rohit Chakravarty

The world has probably never seen more antipathy towards bats than today.

Rohit Chakravarty earned his BSc Zoology-Botany in 2012 at St. Xavier’s College of Mumbai University, Mumbai, and his MSc Wildlife Biology & Conservation in 2014 at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Currently, Rohit is a PhD student in the Batlab at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, where he studies bat assemblages along an elevational gradient in the Himalaya.

Bat researcher Rohit Chakravarty

How would you describe the current situation in your own words?

The current situation looks very grim from a conservation standpoint. Bats have never been the most liked animals but today our hatred for them is at its peak. As bats were implicated for “spreading” COVID-19, ironically, in a jiffy, people forgot that they co-existed with bats for centuries without being infected by deadly viruses. In this age of social media, misinformation spreads far more rapidly than verified news and that is a huge societal and conservation challenge. It has become more important than ever before, for ecologists to step out of their bubble and become powerful voices for their study animals.

What threats do you think that bats will face now and in the future due to the pandemic?

The pandemic has pushed bat conservation back by a decade or more. The world has probably never seen more antipathy towards bats than today. Misguided killings or removal of bats from their roosts are on the rise, particularly in countries where there is no law protecting bats. In India, we are witnessing a lot of animosity towards bats. Flying fox roosts are being axed, urban citizens in Bangalore are increasingly pleading for bats to be removed from their neighbourhoods and 150 mouse-tailed bats were killed in the north-western state of Rajasthan. This is only the news that was documented by the media; the actual undocumented cases may be several orders higher! To make matters worse, bats are not protected in India so people who are killing them will not face any legal trial. I believe this is true of most developing tropical countries in the world. The negative attitudes are, unfortunately, a global phenomenon. Even in developed countries with higher rates of literacy, we are seeing reports of people panicking due to the presence of bats. All of these threats may persist in the future unless researchers and conservationists initiate large-scale efforts to educate the public and promote a positive attitude towards bats.

A hunted Blyth’s Flying Fox ©Rohit Chakravarty
A persecuted Blyth’s Flying Fox ©Rohit Chakravarty

What could we do as (bat) researchers now to prevent this?

The biggest threat that bats have always faced is a bad reputation. On the positive side, it is relatively easier to tackle this problem, and everyone — irrespective of their professions — can help. As researchers, we need to come out of our scientific bubble and create a sense of interest, awe and wonder about bats in the general public by sharing solid scientific knowledge along with solutions on how to live with these fascinating mammals. Simple communication methods such as talks, webinars and creative writing in magazines and newspapers provide a great start, and we need to allow these to snowball into larger awareness programs. The tougher nuts amongst us should engage with policy-makers to strengthen the legal framework to conserve bats. We also need to engage a lot more with the media to improve the quality and balance of scientific and ecological reportage. Bats are under threat today because media reports are sensational and imbalanced — we are also a tiny cog in that problematic wheel. In India (as with many other tropical countries), communicating science in regional languages is extremely crucial.

Cave Nectar Bat ©Rohit Chakravarty

Conservation champions

Do you also know about someone who is trying to change negative attitudes towards wildlife through community engagement or in another way that inspires you, please let us know! We would love to use this space to shed light on some of the ‘hidden conservation champions’ out there! Please contact us on Twitter ‘Exploring Conservation Conflicts’ to share your thoughts on this topic

Exploring various perspectives on conservation conflicts, including Conservation Biology, Moral Philosophy & Human Dimensions. Moderated by Tanja & Lysanne.

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