Yangyel Lhaden

As dusk descends, it emerges in search of food. After feeding on fruits, it disperses the seeds, and it also aids in pollination. It preys on pests too. And, when the world wakes up, it goes to sleep.

Many people are unaware of the importance of this nocturnal creature – the bat. What many do know are the various beliefs associated with bats that vary from region to region. Some consider bats a good omen, while others believe they bring ill luck.

A lecturer from the College of Natural Resources, Sangay Tshering, has spent the last eight years studying and challenging people’s beliefs. His aim is to compile a baseline data on bats for the country.

He has so far documented about 40 species of bats from six districts—Haa, Paro, Punakha, Chukha, Thimphu, and Bumthang.

His journey started when Sangay was pursuing his Master’s degree in Environment Management in India. He began by assisting his friend, a PhD student who was studying bats.  And his passion grew; he started writing a proposal to study bats in Bhutan to the Rufford Foundation in 2016. He received Euro 5,000.

“My proposal was modest,” Sangay said. “They were kind enough to see that the study of bats was the first of a kind in Bhutan; they gave me funding not because of the quality of my proposal but to encourage future researchers.”

Beliefs and stigmas associated with bats

“Firstly, people avoid me,” Sangay said. “They believe I might be carrying diseases from bats.”

Bats are considered the reservoirs of disease. So, Sangay uses a thick pair of gloves while handling the bats as part of his research. Whether the bats can directly transmit the disease to humans is yet to be established.

In western Bhutan, people believe that a bat’s urine can cause baldness. Trying to disprove the belief, Sangay holds a bat and let it in shock urinate and shoot droppings.

“See, I did not lose a single hair,” Sangay says. “Going by the belief, I could have gone bald long ago. Every time I come back from caves after studying bats, I am covered in their dirt.”

When Sangay goes to study bats, in some regions, he encountered strong resistance from the local people. They believed he was there to hunt a special bat with wings that supposedly bear prints of gambling cards, dice, and arrows. It is believed that whoever is in possession of such wings would be a master gambler.

“ I have never seen such a bat, nor is such a kind of bat documented in the rest of the world,” Sangay says.

While some believe bats are a harbinger of evil, they are also believed to be a protective deity.  If found roosting in holy caves and found hanging from the rafters of a house, bats are considered good omen.

“Even if the belief towards bats is positive, it is not easy,” Sangay says. “People believe I would disturb the creatures, and that they wouldn’t come back.

In Bumthang, bats are called Phadenma, and they are believed to possess images of cattle and arrows in their wings. It is believed that whoever finds such a bat, he or she would be able to own a large herd of cattle.

In eastern Bhutan, bats are called Phawang and traditionally are disliked. They are believed to represent evil spirits.

But bats play an important role for the growth of the environment and humanity.

Why conserve bats?

Out of the 40 species of bat documented by Sangay, one is classified as “near threatened” and another as “vulnerable.”  Sangay has also documented 13 new bat species in the country: 11 that belong to the Vespertilionidae family and two that belong to the Rhinolophidae family.

While small mammal conservation is considered crucial in Bhutan, the predominant emphasis and priority are directed towards flagship and endangered species, leaving many species like bats without sufficient data and public awareness.  Their ecological significance is equally important.

Sangay says: “ I agree that species like tiger and white-bellied herons are very important and critically endangered species, but at the same time, bats are also important and should not be neglected because all species in ecosystem have their ecological roles.”

Ecologically, birds also aid in seed dispersal and pollination, but the contribution of the bats to the economy far outweighs that of other species.

For example, pest-eating bats have saved more than USD one billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs in the USA corn industry alone, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2023. Likewise, according to a field guide to the bats of Sri Lanka, fruit bats have helped pollinate more than USD 230 million worth of Durian flowers in Southeast Asia

Sangay involves the communities by advocating about the importance of bats. His approach includes live demonstrations to dispel myths.

Bats have chosen permanent roosting sites on the ground floors of houses in Chimi Lhakhang and Sirigang in Punakha.

“Human families and bats have peacefully coexisted for over a decade,” Sangay observes. “A man has even set aside his plan to build a new home because he has share the domicile with the bats for as long as he can remember.”

“I cannot stop now,” Sangay says. “There is so much to learn about the significance of bats. The grant from WWF encourages me to explore further, until I complete recording bat data for the whole country.”

Sangay’s connection with bats stretch way back to his childhood in Silambi, Mongar. Bats would fly into his house at night.  Every night a white bat used to visit but one day his cat caught and killed. He has not seen another white bat since.

One of Sangay’s quests has been to spot a white bat. He wonders what role the rare white bat might be playing in the environment.