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Education can change local perception of bats, help conserve species, study says

A Malayan flying fox, which despite it's name is actually a bat. Photo credit: Andrea Janda via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  • Researchers in North Sumatra found that local farmers’ awareness of bats’ role in pollinating durian crops was low.
  • Some bat species are in decline in the study area, partly due to hunting.

Increasing knowledge of ecosystem services is key to conserving bats and supporting communities in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, according to a recent study published in the journal Biodiversitas. Researchers quizzed members of local communities around the Batang Toru ecosystem to understand their perception of bat populations.

The researchers found that local communities have limited knowledge about positive ecosystem services provided by bats and that they are primarily viewed as a source of meat.

Durian is one crop communities grow in agroforestry systems, alongside others such as rubber and sugar palm, and is vital to local livelihoods. Bats play an important role in pollinating the crop. Awareness of this among farmers, however, was low.

While many farmers were familiar with bats’ presence on their farms, there was a lack of understanding of this service, Hamid Arrum Harahap, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at Universitas Andalas, said in an interview. “There are some misconceptions,” he said. “They think that bats don’t help the pollination process — in fact, [some] think that they make the durian pollination fail.”

Bats play an important role in the pollination of durian, a crop that is vital for many local farmers’ livelihoods. Image by Cameron Yee via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The majority of over 100 respondents were unaware bats pollinated their crop and many did not know a loss of bats could affect crops, according to the study.

“One of the concerning findings is that one out of seven farmers are conducting negative actions towards bats,” Arrum said. Farmers reported that they either hunted, consumed or used bats in traditional medicine as a cure for asthma. Bats were also sold in local markets. Those who held traditional beliefs in the “sacred forest,” however, were less likely to hunt bats, Arrum found.

Increasing awareness of the positive ecosystem services provided by bats could benefit both their conservation and support local communities’ livelihoods, according to study author Arrum Harahap. Image by Arrum Harahap.

Three species — the large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus), cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) and Dayak fruit bat (Dyacopterus spadiceus) — are among those frequently hunted in the area and are considered least concern or near threatened. All three species are in decline across their range, primarily due to habitat loss.

Arrum’s survey was conducted in 2020 during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases his concern about local consumption of bats. “[I]n the first years of the pandemic, there was increasing awareness of the dangers of wildlife consumption,” he said. “But in the local communities where they are interacting with bats every day, they’re still consumed and also hunted.”

He added, “I think there’s an urgency for cooperation between the health sector and forestry sector to educate the communities about the dangers of bat consumption.”

Bats were more broadly seen as a source of food or traditional medicine by local farmers. Image courtesy of Khairul Abdi.

Based on these findings, Arrum said education initiatives should be extended to local communities by government bodies and conservation organizations to increase knowledge of the ecosystem services provided by bats. By conserving bat populations and reducing pressure on them, it could benefit durian farmers and help local communities.

“One of the key solutions to this problem is the importance of engaging local communities,” he said. “Not only educating the local communities, but also learning from them about their interactions with the bat.”

Banner: A Malayan flying fox, which despite it’s name is actually a bat. Image by Andrea Janda via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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