January 26, 2012 01:00 AM
By Olivia Alabaster
The Daily Star
Flying bats
Flying bats

BEIRUT: The largest single colony of fruit bats in the Middle East, residing in a cave in the Akkar region of north Lebanon, was last weekend largely destroyed by vandals, with thousands of bats killed.

Dr. Mounir Abi-Said, founder of Animals Encounter, and a professor at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese University, conducted a routine check on the colony as part of research into the highly endangered animal begun in 2007.

“The cave was full of shotgun pellets, spent fireworks and AK-47 bullet casings and there was evidence that fires had been started in the cave,” Abi-Said told The Daily Star.

Fig trees, which had previously sheltered the entrance to the cave, have been burned down, exposing the bats to the light and elements. Bats roost in dark conditions.

Fruit bats, also known as megabats, are one of 20 species of bat native to Lebanon, and have a wingspan of up to 75cm. They are the only species of bat in Lebanon which does not hibernate, as their bodies, adapted to tropical climates, remain warm enough to stay awake all year long.

“Bats used to cover the whole ceiling area of the cave, but now only a few remain,” Abi-Said said. “We conduct weekly checkups on the cave between December and February. Previously there were around 7,000 bats in this cave and now there must be only 2,000.”

“A lot of them had been shot, but they wouldn’t have died immediately. They have clearly crawled to seek shelter and then died,” he added.

Abi-Said has no idea who is responsible for the attack on the cave and the bats, but believes it could have been done by a person or group of people afraid of the animal, the only flying mammal in the world.

Some people do not like bats as they leave dropping on their cars, Abi-Said believes, and “there are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding bats, and many people are scared of them, some of which stems from Dracula and associations with vampire bats.”

However, these misconceptions are groundless, Abi-Said insists. “None of the bat species in Lebanon would ever attack humans, and none carry rabies.”

In fact, he added, they are an integral part of the native ecology.

“Toward the end of summer and into autumn, fruit bats play a vital part in the germination of fruits in Lebanon, by eating fruit and spreading the seeds through their droppings,” Abi-Said said. Fruit bats can distribute seeds up to 30 km away from where they were collected, allowing for the widespread germination of fruit trees.

Also, Abi-Said added, bat droppings, or guano, are very rich in nutrients, and can be used as a fertilizer. In the Far East, guano is often a very important source of income for those living near bat roosts.

The other 19 bat species in Lebanon are insectivores and the small brown bats commonly seen at sunset can eat up to 600 insects every hour.

All bat species in Lebanon are classified as “highly endangered,” and Abi-Said said that much greater awareness of this unique mammal is needed.

Bats in Lebanon are at risk due to two key factors: the heavy use of pesticides, which enter a bat’s fat deposits, slowly killing the animal during hibernation, and the destruction of their habitats. This latter issue is related to quarrying, cave fires, and caving, which can scare bats from their homes.

Some hunters also practice shooting on bats, further putting them at risk, Abi-Said added.

Caves should be better protected, the biologist believes. “This should involve the ministries of tourism, environment, agriculture and interior and the various caving associations.”

At the Animals Encounter center in Aley, Abi-Said is also working to increase awareness and understanding surrounding all native species to Lebanon, including wolves, hyenas, wild cats, porcupines, badgers and squirrels, as well as bats.

At the center, in Aley, visitors can tour the facilities every weekend, or by appointment. Entrance is by donation, as, Abi-Said said, “Knowledge should be for everyone, as should wildlife. We don’t want money to be an issue.”

“We have to talk more about animals, but still keep a balance with the scientific side to things. We don’t want people to be purely sympathetic toward animals: That won’t help,” he said. “There are a lot of problems in Lebanon, but wildlife is vital for the environment.”

For more information, please visit www.animalencounter.org/en/main.php.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2012, on page 12.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Environment/2012/Jan-26/161078-attack-on-akkar-fruit-bats-threatens-local-ecology.ashx#ixzz1kc1OoHfS
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)