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Although elusive due to their mostly nocturnal behavior, bats have fascinated humans for millennia. From their ubiquitous presence in Mayan mythology to being regarded as symbols of good fortune in the Middle-to-Late Qing Dynasty of China, bats have been both feared and celebrated across cultures from all over the world. The research articles included in this collection illustrate the myriad ways in which bats and humans have interacted over time, highlighting how these airborne mammals have been associated with death, witchcraft, vampires, malevolent spirits, and evil in some cultures, while, in other places—particularly across the Asia-Pacific region—they have been largely linked to luck and good fortune and used as spiritual totems. This collection also showcases how multiple cultural groups, particularly across the tropics, have traditionally hunted bats for human consumption and traditional medicine, and used their guano as a fertilizer. In times of rapid global change and when bats are often associated with zoonotic disease risks, a trend that has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, this special issue constitutes one significant step towards a richer understanding of bat-human inter-relationships. The lives of humans and bats have been closely intertwined over time and our collection celebrates how bat diversity supports the biocultural richness of our planet.
Chiroptophobia, or the fear of bats, which encompasses negative perceptions of bats as disease vectors, pests, or harmful creatures associated with evil spirits, represents an important barrier to bat conservation globally. Derived largely from the influence of Western cultural perceptions, it ignores the diverse cultural perceptions of bats from other regions, which have been largely overlooked. To better understand local beliefs and cultural perceptions regarding bats across the Asia-Pacific region, and how they may help design culturally grounded conservation strategies, we conducted a review of publications in the English-language literature documenting cultural value of bats in Asia-Pacific traditions. We discovered 119 bat cultural values in 60 different cultures from 24 countries across the region and found a wide spectrum of reports, which we categorized according to five wildlife value categories and further categorized these values according to positive, neutral, and negative. We found that 62% of the cultures had only positive values, 8% had only neutral values, while 10% had only negative values. This suggests that the Asia-Pacific region and its cultures contain far more positive associations with bats than most Western societies and, as such, offer promising examples and opportunities to promote human-bat coexistence. However, we also discuss how local belief systems may not always align with daily practices or conservation objectives. We suggest employing targeted, culturally grounded and locally contextualized outreach strategies in order to carry out more effective bat conservation and education in Asia-Pacific countries.
Bats have always fascinated people by their unusual appearance, but fear towards them is also common, particularly in Western societies. Making headlines worldwide during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, bats were all too often accused of carrying and transmitting a disproportionate share of dangerous viruses. We enquired about the origin and persistence of this thinking in Sweden by searching old literature and original museum records where bats are mentioned. In the Bible, the bat is an explicitly unclean animal. At least since the Middle Ages, it has been used as a symbol of the Devil, with the dark skin wings in deliberate contrast to the white wings of angels. However, according to our folklore records, the bat was usually seen in a different and generally positive context by the people, and was treated with respect. Its magic properties, particularly contained in the blood, eyes, and wings, could bring fortune and prevent bad luck in various everyday contexts. A minority of records refer to bats being used in witchcraft, black magic, or, following the religious dogma, claiming that they are ugly or unclean and cannot be the work of God. We found no indication that bats were considered aggressive, dangerous, or to carry disease. Hence, we surmise there was little fear of bats in Swedish (Nordic) history, despite the religious message. Hence, the general attitude towards bats in the past seems to have been opposite to the view currently met in Western societies.
Human-bat interactions are common in rural areas across the tropics. Over 40 bat species occur in Madagascar, most of which are endemic. Forest loss is changing the distribution of bats throughout the island, with potential increases in both the abundance of synanthropic species and human-bat interactions. We set out to study knowledge of, interactions with, and attitudes towards bats in rural Madagascar, including reports of food and ethnomedicinal uses of bats, their cultural representations in folklore, and the existence of culturally enforced taboos in relation to them. We administered 108 surveys with open- and closed-ended questions with adults from the Tanala and Betsileo ethnic groups living around Ranomafana National Park. Most interviewees mentioned at least two types of bats. Over 10% of the interviewees had consumed bats and ∼20% used bat guano as a fertilizer. Around one-fifth recognized cultural taboos inhibiting bat hunting and consumption and most considered bats not to be dangerous. However, some informants mentioned that bats could carry diseases and complained about the bad smell and noise associated with bat roosts in houses and public buildings. Nearly 25% of the respondents could identify cultural representations of bats in local folklore. Malagasy rural communities interact closely with bats, but severely underestimate the diversity of bat species around them. Taken together, our results greatly increase the understanding of social-ecological complexities of human-bat relationships in rural Madagascar, offer possible pathways for biocultural approaches to conservation, and yield insights applicable to other communities coexisting with bats across the humid tropics.
While relatively little is known about bats across much of Africa, globally, many bat populations are in decline due to human activities. Successful bat conservation efforts, therefore, depend on both ecological studies and research on human-bat relationships. To address these knowledge gaps about African bats and their interactions with humans, we used semi-structured interviews of pastoralists in northwestern Namibia to assess local experiences with, attitudes toward, and cultural stories about bats. Our research was conducted in conjunction with an ecological study on Namib Desert bat distributions, thus allowing for a broader understanding of the social-ecological dynamics of human-bat interactions in this region. Though only 65% of interviews were able to correctly identify bats from photographs, 100% classified these species as bats when provided with an additional description of “animals that fly at night.” A majority (77%) of interviews expressed positive attitudes toward bats and over a third (38%) provided cultural stories, offering detailed reports of myths and common meanings assigned to bats. Of those stories, 12% indicated that bats brought good luck or good rains, and 84% specified that bats represented bad luck or omens of injuries, death, disease, or lack of rains. While the primary threats of habitat loss and bushmeat hunting were never mentioned in our interviews, the influence of negative cultural stories on individual behavior could pose challenges for future bat conservation initiatives. This qualitative approach combined with ecological research may be valuable for assessing cross-cultural relationships between humans and understudied wildlife in other remote areas.
Bat populations are declining worldwide because of anthropogenic activities, including habitat destruction and hunting. Cambodia represents an important case study for studying human-bat interactions, as loss of karst caves and the destruction of forests threaten the stability of bat populations and the ecosystem services they provide. Cambodians rely on bats for tourism revenue, fertilizer from guano, and as a source of protein. However, there is a lack of information on people's attitudes towards and relationships with cave-roosting bats. In 2018, we interviewed 60 residents around three karst outcrops (Sampeau Hill, Banan Hill, and Reichiatra Hill) in Battambang Province, northwestern Cambodia, along with agricultural professionals in Battambang Town, the province's capital. The primary objectives of the interviews were to examine people's (1) attitudes towards bats, (2) experiences with bats, and (3) engagement in high-risk behaviors associated with transmission of bat-related diseases (e.g., guano mining, hunting, etc.). Most respondents (70%) held positive attitudes towards bats and listed guano production, pest control, and tourism as benefits bats provide. Additionally, all informants believed bats should be protected and stated that they would feel sad if bats were extirpated. Conversely, respondents noted that many people eat bats. We followed these semi-structured interviews with five key informant interviews involved with the conservation of bats, which provided information on the history of human-bat interactions within these communities. Respondents' positive attitudes towards bats and recognition of ecosystem services bats provide indicate they would support bat conservation policy and may be interested in developing community-based conservation programs around karst outcrops.
Drawing on previous publications by the author, this article brings together information on folk classification and symbolic values of bats among the Nage people of the Indonesian island of Flores. This information is supplemented by new data from more recent field-based ethnobiological research in Nage and other parts of Flores, and is analyzed comparatively with reference to ideas about Chiropterans from other parts of the world. The way Nage and other Flores Islanders treat bats may appear cross-culturally unusual, but their ideas are shown to fit within a range of ways humans think about these remarkable creatures. In a more general vein, attention is given to the widely recognized morphological and behavioral ambiguity of bats and the variable extent to which this ambiguity affects their representation—both in folk zoological classification (or ethnotaxonomy) and symbolic thought (including taboo, spiritual belief, myth, and metaphor). A comparative analysis also demonstrates how, by contrast to the stereotypical view of bats as embodiments of evil in European thought, both Westerners and non-Westerners can represent bats positively, and that even where a generally negative view prevails, bats can possess a positive value contextually.