What bats are good for

Dr Wong socialising with a grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) at Animals of Oz, a wildlife rescue and education centre in Melbourne, Australia.

THEY are often referred to as creatures of the night, linked to vampires in European folklore.

Among the world's most misunderstood animals, bats often receive negative attention and Halloween associations in modern media, which is why Malaysian non-profit research group Rimba initiated a collaborative effort to further study the cultural values of bats across the Asia-Pacific region.

Rimba along with Monash University Malaysia, University of Bristol, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Manamea Art Studio, Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Mandalay, Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program, University College Sabah Foundation, and Kyoto University studied 60 different cultures from 24 countries across the Asia Pacific region, analysing citations of key articles, websites, local knowledge and information from those working on bat-related research.

They discovered 119 bat cultural values, with more than 60% having only positive values and only 10% having negative values – implying that the region and its customs contain far more positive correlations with bats, which may translate into opportunities for human-bat coexistence.

For instance, among Chinese communities, bats are known to represent beneficial qualities such as health, prosperity and long life. The pronunciation of the word "bat" in Chinese is "fú" – which is a homonym to the Chinese word for "blessing".

A Celebration of Bats in Asia-Pacific Cultures is a map by Malaysian artist Reimena Yee, commissioned by Rimba to visually highlight the multitude of positive beliefs around bats within the region. – Image by Rimba

They are popular motifs in artwork among Malaysian and Indonesian cultures and bat-inspired patterns can be found in batik, songket and pua kumbu.

The popular Malay folk dance Zapin also has steps that symbolise humility, which draws inspiration from the flying fox's (a large fruit bat) elbow.

In some parts of India, they are even considered divine animals with ties to the deities Muni, Kali, and Lakshmi.

Positive representations of bats are similarly abundant among indigenous communities of the Asia-Pacific.

For the Ibans of Borneo, bats are considered the spiritual messengers of respected shamans while a bat flying into one's home is interpreted as the arrival of a shaman bringing good vibes.

Among the Samoans, the flying fox is painted as a heroic saviour in mythology, having played a role in the rescue of the Tongan king's wife.

"I think that this collaborative research is a wonderful opportunity for us to remind people of how amazing bats are and the historical role they have played in shaping the cultural fabric of this region," says Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong, head of department (Malaysia Immersion Hub) at Monash University Malaysia.

Demonstrating that cultural expressions are closely tied to the communities' interactions with animals and their habitats, the undertaking clearly indicates a rich collection of socio-cultural representations of bats across the region.

They were able to help correct and supply additional information in the literature, emphasising the significance of local involvement and leadership in ethnobiological research and the need for more locally spearheaded documentation efforts.

"As bat conservationists, we were thrilled to discover the wealth of positive stories and symbols related to bats, especially those in Malaysian cultures, as these accounts rarely penetrate mainstream media, ” says Rimba Project Pteropus senior conservation scientist and lead investigator Mary-Ruth Low.

“We are hopeful that this publication will help more Malaysians realise the positive impact that bats have had on our ancestors' lives and will spur further efforts to document cultural accounts and traditions related to bats in the region.”

Those interested can read the full Ethnobiology of Bats by the Journal of Ethnobiology.

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