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NEPA goes to 'bat' for endangered mammal

Published:Sunday | February 15, 2015 | 2:00 AM

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

For all their reputation as harbingers of terror and architects of nightmares across the world, bats actually contribute to the economic welfare of human beings, especially in the areas of agriculture and the environment, with little understanding or appreciation of their contribution by those who benefit the most.

Commonly referred to as rat bats in Jamaica, they are actually more closely related to primates than rodents and are the only mammals capable of true flight.

Insectivorous bats consume enormous quantities of nocturnal insects, including many that are harmful to crops and pests to humans, with some bats capable of consuming more than 1,000 insects per night, including mosquitoes.

The Windsor Research Centre which hosts the website www.cockpitcountry.com estimates that a colony of 50,000 bats, the estimated population for Windsor Great Cave in Trelawny, Jamaica, would consume nearly 18 billion insects per year.

The website goes on to explain that fruit-eating bats are the most important seed-dispersing mammals in the tropics. As they defecate in flight, seeds are dispersed away from the mother tree, thus increasing a seedling's chances of survival. In addition, nectar-feeding bats, along with some fruit bats that visit flowers, pollinate thousands of bat-dependent tropical trees and shrubs.

Among commercially valuable plants, bats are responsible for pollinating banana, mango, guava, avocado, fig, and cashew.

Most of Jamaica's bats are extremely greedy eaters, with scientists pointing out that after feeding for half an hour a bat's stomachs may contain food weighing up to a quarter of its total weight. Most are insect eaters, but there is one species which feeds on fruits, as well as a rare fish-eating bat, which at twilight eats fish for dinner.

It is this kind of useful information the National Environment and Protection Agency (NEPA) is moving to share with Jamaicans in order to stop the abuse of the 21 species of bat on record in Jamaica, five of which are endemic, according to Andrea Donaldson, manager of the Ecosystems Management Branch.

Donaldson told The Sunday Gleaner that ignorance, fear and misconceptions about 'rat bats' have over the years led to deliberate destruction of their roosts, forcing them to seek accommodation in man-made structures such as homes and other buildings, which puts them at greater risk. In addition, their habitat is being negatively affected by housing and other developments.

Guano

"A lot of persons don't like them because of the smell of the bat droppings known as guano, which will run down your walls. In a lot of instances, we get calls from people who contacted a pest control operator who do the right thing by telling them they are not supposed to be killing them and advise that they call NEPA. However, there are those who do go in and kill them," she disclosed.

Donaldson explained that bats are not protected under the Wildlife Protection Act and so possession is not an offence, but efforts are ongoing to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Public education, emphasising the animal's key role in helping to maintain diversity of ecosystems, is going to be very critical.

The invasion of caves inhabited by bats for the harvesting of guano, which is marketed as fertiliser, has provided an additional income stream for some young men in rural Jamaica, who could be exposing themselves to a serious health risk. Rich in phosphate, guano is used as fertiliser and organic mulch and even when dry may contain viable spores of a fungus, which can result in a fungal disease in anyone breathing in the spores.

Donaldson is concerned that despite the potential health threats to humans, the bats are now also facing a serious threat as a result of the introduction of American cockroaches which have been breeding at an alarming level and disturbing the ecosystems of the caves. The NEPA scientists theorise that cockroach eggs may have been carried in on bags used to store the guano and which were displaced during packaging and have since hatched.

"You may find the entire floor of a cave is full of American cockroaches which are eating other insects in there and the amount .... . I don't know if it changes the environment of the cave but having cockroaches in a cave is always a negative for bats.

"The other thing we found that endangers bats is persons who use flares (torches) to smoke or burn them out. We visited a cave once in Manchester and historically it is known to have bats but it didn't have any anymore because a farmer went in with his torch and literally burnt them out. He was thinking that the bats were eating his crops and so he just went in and burnt them out, burnt them all out," Donaldson lamented.

She is urging the public to contact NEPA with any sightings or suspected sightings of bats, as well as questions or concerns they may have, advising that its officers are available and willing to shed new light on a misunderstood creature which for too long has been shrouded in mystery and myth.