It's hard out there for a bat: not only do the flying mammals suffer from a terrible public image (bats do not, as rumor has it, roost in hair or necessarily carry rabies) but their very existence is severely threatened by loss of habitat and disease. Caves from the eastern to central United States used to be havens for hibernating bats, housing millions of the creatures, but today, these same caves host a terrible fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome. The disease causes bats to wake from their winter slumber and fly around, wasting valuable fat reserves and leading to starvation.
But for all the woes bats face, one of the best ways to protect them might be to remove the stigma and embrace bat tourism. "Bat tourism is important because it helps communities have a reason to sustain large populations of bats. Bats have historically suffered from persecution because of the misconceptions about them. Bat tourism can be economically important to a community, thereby providing the incentive to sustain the bat populations," says Lisa Pennisi, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has spent nearly 20 years studying bats. "Bats play a very important role in ecosystems as pollinators, insectivores and frugivores. A number of species are keystone species, playing a vital role in their ecosystems."
Unlike with bird migrations, which can be difficult to time, bats are fairly easy to see in huge numbers. "They are one of the few mammals that have a nightly emergence and can do so by the millions. What an amazing thing to see: millions of mammals flying out of a roost all at once," Pennisi says. "A definite bucket list item."
No matter where you choose to look for bats, Pennisi urges potential bat tourists to use common sense and chose places that reduce potential problems associated with observing bats in the wild. "The best places to see bats for most people are where they are easily accessible and predictable. Accessible includes places where people don't have to crawl in a cave. This is also best for the bats," she says. "Bat watching in caves can harm bats by awakening them during hibernation, disturbing them and spreading White-Nose Syndrome." If you're interested in traveling to see bats, consider doing some preliminary research with bat conservation organizations to find sustainable viewing sites around the world. Here are a few choices:
Bracken Cave, Texas
Bracken Cave is the summer home of the largest colony of bats in the world. From March to October, over 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats take up residence in Bracken Cave, located in the Texas Hill Country. To protect the cave from the growing San Antonio suburbs that are rapidly expanding toward it, Bat Conservation International purchased the cave, as well as 697 surrounding acres, to ensure the bats' natural habitat would remain untouched. Nightly, the bats emerge from the cave by the millions to hunt for insects, offering visitors a chance to see one of the highest concentrations of mammals on earth.