KATHMANDU, April 8: Hundreds of bats hung quietly from the trees and walls around the Narayanhiti Palace, Babarmahal and near Tindhara Pathshala areas of the Valley not so long ago. The sight has now become a rarity, thanks to the insensitive butchering of old trees.
These flying foxes or pteropus bats that lived in these places have probably migrated to Nagarjuna forest or Swayambhu, but nothing can be said for certain as no statistics based on research are available.
Cave bats in Nepal fare worse. They are now said to be on the verge of extinction as a result of government aided cave tourism, which is promoted by local organizations in association with Nepal Tourism Board (NTB).
Three main caves in the country that are bats inhabited are Siddha cave in Bandipur, Mahendra cave in Pokhara and Jalabinayak cave in Chobhar. Siddha cave is the second largest cave in South Asia and is a habitat to thousands of cave bats. During the last eight-year, the number of bats in this cave has almost come down to half the original number.
“Cave tourism within geo-tourism is gaining popularity worldwide. Caves are also the prime habitats for bats and little research about their habitats, ecology and behaviors have been carried out for us to go for uncontrolled tourism,” Hum Gurung, the CEO of Bird Conservation Nepal, said.
Uncontrolled tourist entries into caves, especially at nights, threaten this species´ habitat. Two factors contribute to that -- lighting and Noise. First, tourists take along with them kerosene lanterns and flash cameras inside the cave which disturb these nocturnal mammals. Second, during their breeding and resting period, bats become over sensitive to their environment. Bats resist noise.
In some caves like Chamero Gufa in Dang, locals have used ladders inside the cave to place power connections. Temperature variation induces changes in behaviors of cave bats.
On the flip side, bats are harmless and very productive for humans. Bats act as natural pest control for farmers as they feed on insects, especially pests like crickets that destroy crops. Also, bat dropping is high in nitrogen and phosphorus which is considered good fertilizers and used for producing gun-powder.
“The utility of guano (bat waste) is high. Bat extinction will hit farmers in rural areas hard,” said Manoj Gautam, a conservationist.
“Impact assessment is a must now. The ecological factor of unrestricted tourist entry into caves can be huge,” Gautam added.
Gautam, who is also initiating a study in Siddha cave said, “One can pay a minimum Rs 50 to enter this cave. NTB must impose a restriction on the numbers of visitors.”
NTB´s media consultant Sarad Pradhan said that no cavelogical study has been undertaken so far. He, however, informed that tourists are allowed inside the cave only with a guide and killing bats is strictly restricted.
“Although no preservation initiative has been undertaken for the cave bats, tourists visiting the caves are not allowed to kill the animals.”
He also said that the management of the caves is under local communities and organizations.
Scientists call bats Chiroptera. According to South Asian Chiroptera Conservation Assessment and Management Plan, Nepal has 51 species of bats, of which 5 are data deficient, 5 vulnerable, 20 not threatened, 17 least concerned, 2 critically endangered, 1 endangered, and one status unknown.
In Pokhara alone, 15 species of insectivorous bats are found.