An Ecosystem In Peril: Gunning For Bats

An Ecosystem In Peril: Gunning For Bats
The video doing the rounds Saturday morning came as a shock to many of us.  A police force in Nawabshah, Sindh, was seen shooting its guns into the trees inhabited by bats, specifically the Indian Flying Fox. Let this thought sink in for a moment.  A group of police officers in official uniforms shot and killed dozens of bats in Pakistan.  The reason?  Local communities perceived the bats as a threat to their crops and orchards, and hence brought in personnel better prepared for law enforcement than mass culling of an integral wildlife species. 

This clearly points to the lack of awareness amongst communities and authorities alike, with regard to the wildlife and their significance to the ecosystem. It also makes us question the governance mechanisms whereby a police force is deployed to manage what is clearly a case of human-wildlife conflict and coexistence.     

A limited knowledge base exists vis-à-vis conservation of bats in Pakistan.  However, existing studies focused on fruits bats do shed some light on the intensity of human-bat conflict and scale of their habitat degradation. Local communities have long considered them a pest. However, contrary to this general perception, bats are a unique, elegant and fascinating species instrumental to ecosystem resilience.  As the only true flying mammals that exhibit sustainable flight, bats comprise approximately 28% of known mammalian population in the country. 

Bats are considered to be excellent ecological indicators as they can perceive and respond to changes in their environment and climate, thus helping us be better informed and prepared. Moreover, seed dispersal and pollination activities of fruit and nectar eating bats are vital to the survival and sustainability of forests and fruit orchards. Bats are nocturnal, yet social animals which means they live together in roosts on trees. They are also natural predators of a variety of insects that otherwise pose a risk to the crops, rather than being a threat to food security themselves. In fact, their presence in agricultural areas can reduce reliance on pesticides.  

Despite these significant ecological contributions, bats are amongst the least popular species within the animal kingdoms. The perceived linkage of bats with Covid-19 outbreak has not helped to improve their reputation. Ironically, nearly one third of all known species of bats are threatened with extinction around the world and Pakistan is no exception. Loss of habitats, roosting sites and other human-induced threats are the key factors that are contributing to their diminishing populations. 

The Indian Flying Fox, for example, is a lot more rare now in Pakistan than it used to be two to three decades ago.  This is primarily because its habitat has been encroached by humans as they fulfilled their demands for timber and fuel wood.  Communities do not understand their value to the natural ecosystem.  In addition, research is virtually non-existent and data on bat species, their geographical distribution, and related anthropogenic threats is scarce. This makes it difficult to develop and implement meaningful conservation measures. 

According to studies conducted by WWF-Pakistan, on average, between 200-300 Indian Flying Foxes are culled in Sukkur and Khairpur Districts of Sindh on an annual basis. This is of significant concern since their reproduction rates are already quite low, leaving them vulnerable to becoming a threatened species.  

Current laws in some regions of the country still do not offer ample protection coverage to these species. The Punjab Wildlife Act (1974), for example, places Indian fruit bats in the fourth schedule, a category that lists animals that are not protected.  As one of the leading advocates of nature based solutions in an era marred by climate change, Pakistan will do well to embark on a plan to develop integrated policies that speak to the threat faced by bat species in the country.  This would entail ensuring that bats are protected under local and national laws across the country.  

Moreover, field surveys can be conducted to understand more about the ecology of bat habitats, and their feeding, roosting and nesting sites as well as scale of threats.  This needs to be followed up with community-wide household surveys and focus group discussions to determine the causes of bat culling, its frequency and target species. Organizations such as WWF-Pakistan can undertake such endeavors in collaboration with local wildlife departments and universities to foster evidence-based community inclusive conservation measures. 

The information collected can then be analyzed and made part of a comprehensive database that will continue to be updated on a regular basis.  Conservation scientists and researchers can then use this information to inform policies and decision-making processes. For example, the gathered information could be used to develop GIS based habitat models highlighting population hotspots, interaction with human population and perceived risks.  

At the same time, capacity building and sensitization initiatives need to be taken up in the communities and government departments. Such initiatives would entail in-depth discussions around perceived and real threats from bats to the communities as well as the benefits that accrue to them due the presence of a particular species.  

The Nawabshah episode will lead to an inquiry and perhaps reprimands. Yet, we should not forget the larger picture. Human-wildlife conflicts, complicated by varied socioeconomic and environmental factors, have to be dealt with in such a way so as to ensure our coexistence with species that make up an important part of the ecological realm.  With climate change looming large and the threat of environmental degradation adding to the risk to our food security and ecological well-being, we would do well to reconsider our place on the planet in relation to other species, plant or animal. 

The authors are associated with WWF-Pakistan