Many years ago, an ailing chief from a village in eastern Ghana was admitted to the 37 Military Hospital in the capital city of Accra. According to local legend, he was accompanied by fruit bats from his locale, as a sort of “honour guard” for the dying man. In time, the chief passed on. But, so says the legend, the bats are still waiting for him to be discharged so they can accompany him back home.
The straw-coloured creatures are the second largest of Africa’s 13 species of fruit bats. However, they stir up controversy with Accra residents and visitors alike. The site they have chosen has become a tourist attraction, as their evening departure for night-time roosts provides ample opportunities for photography.
But their noise and droppings have caused a lot of anxiety and environmental concern. In 2002 and 2005, the military resorted to shooting them down from the mahogany trees where they spend their days. Hospital authorities have repeatedly tried to remove them. But they keep coming back.
Bats usually prefer to live in caves. But caves are often invaded by humans looking for limestone and other minerals. Their other main habitat is trees like those around the 37 Hospital. Trees, however, provide little protection against humans and other predators. Humans often kill colonies because of misconceptions about disease transmission and vampirism.
The Kumasi Centre of Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine, or KCCR, investigates bats and their interactions with humans. Some bat species are known to carry rabies and the Ebola virus, both of which are potentially fatal to humans and other animal species.
But KCCR’s project has shown that bats play an important role in pollination and dispersal of seeds. The larger species feed on fruit, plucking it from trees or bushes and carrying it to safe places to eat. This transports seeds and pollen to new areas.
Ghana exports timber from the iroko tree, one of Africa’s most valuable and threatened hardwoods. Up to 90 per cent of the straw-coloured fruit bat’s diet is iroko fruit. Bats are the tree’s effective seed dispersers. At night during peak fruiting time, the bats disperse more than 300 million iroko seeds across thousands of square miles.
Bats also forage for pollen and nectar. After foraging, they are covered with grains of pollen, which they transfer from plant to plant. This helps to pollinate over 130 species of plants, including plantain, bananas, mangos and avocados.
About 70 per cent of bat species eat insects which attack crops and humans, including mosquitoes, which often carry malaria. So bats are an efficient and environmentally friendly solution to insect problems.
Bat droppings, called guano, can be used as fertilizer, and are an excellent source of nutrients for farmers’ crops. Bats are an important part of our ecosystems, and should be welcomed, not chased away.
The writing of this story was assisted by funding from Friends of the Year of the Bat Campaign. The Year of the Bat was a two-year awareness raising campaign run by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (UNEP/CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS).