Juliet Coombe gets a whole new perspective on bats and the debate Dracula versus The Dark Knight.
Walking around the Jetwing Yala grounds with naturalist Chamara is a fascinating nature trail by day and even more exciting at night time when the Yala bats appear over head in Red Arrows formation. Flapping huge wing spans that makes the moon disappear, the bats themselves then vanish like ghosts into the jungle. Each bat I am told is key to our echo system both as pollinators and terminators of unwanted air born insects, which would become uncontrollable by us on the ground if they became extinct. Bats, formerly also known as flittermice, have fascinated humans for centuries and have, of course, been defamed quite seriously in the last century by fiction writers and media types like me. Blame it on Bram Stoker and his transmutation of the vampire bat into charming human form, blame it on Halloween when my kids like to dress up like bats to get sweets off the neighbours or blame it on the bat being the carrier of rabies to humans in over 80% of all cases, often in a subtle and therefore fatal way – there are almost no survivors of this viral and hideous harbinger of the grim reaper.
Vampire bats may be the only mammals that feed off animal blood but this is just one species of over 1,100 species of bats worldwide, representing 20% of all mammal species, of which 30 can be found in Sri Lanka. If you are not scared of their bloodlust, you might be scared of the very largest of them, the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which can have a wingspan greater than the average adult woman’s height. Then you might be unnerved by their being the only mammals capable of sustained flight and then by the fact that they are more adept than birds at changing direction, flying fast and flittingly, in and out of lit areas or whatever else may temporarily expose their dark, craggy and mysterious forms. If you’re still not impressed, imagine being able to visualise your environment in pitch blackness in minute detail, through echolocation at up to 200 pulses per second and then on top of that, acute hearing to further identify your prey’s faintest of movements and flutterings. You might not know also that none of them are as the old saying goes blind as a bat, though many have poor sight and that they can breathe through their skin in addition to their lungs.
I hope after reading this you are now thinking more about the great cricketeer Sangakarra and his megabat, and Batman, the skilful protector of people with a host of baddies trying to get rid of him instead of the fearful count dracula. On a very serious note bats are becoming increasingly endangered and some species have been wiped out altogether owing mainly to unhealthy farming pesticides that accumulate in their prey, the fact that many people still eat roasted bats in places like Laos, the on going destruction of trees/habitat, the disturbance of roosting caves and the demolition of old houses a place bats love to hang out in and old mine shafts. The protection of bats by relevant authorities in Sri Lanka and many other countries around the world is just the first step in controlling the decline of this most amazing of animals. By going on a walk and sitting in a group at the end of a nature trek under the stars to pick out the different species the general manager at Jetwing Yala and Chamara hope every guest and reader of this piece will be the change we need in the world to protect bats. After all these vitally important creatures that both pollinate like the fruit bats and terminate unwanted air born insects are key to the planet maintaining a natural balance with the planet.