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. Visitors can book a viewing mid-May to mid-September.
Congress Avenue Bridge: Austin, Texas
The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. The bridge was reconstructed in 1980, and its crevices made an ideal roosting location for bats, who began flocking to the bridge by the thousands. Residents of Austin reacted negatively at first, but soon realized that the roughly 1.5 million bats provided free pest control for the city, eating 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects each night.
Austin's daily newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman, supported the creation of the Statesman Bat Observation Center, on the southeast corner of the bridge, which gives visitors a place to watch the nightly fly-outs. Each year, more than 100,000 people make the trek to Austin to see the bats take off on their evening flights.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Seventeen different species of bats call the Carlsbad Caverns home. From spring to fall, a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats takes up residence in the park's caverns, emerging nightly to hunt for insects. But not all of the bats actually live in the caverns—some make their home in trees, while others roost in cracks in cliffs throughout the park.
Though bats live in the park from April to October (depending on the weather), the best time to see bat flights at the Carlsbad Caverns is in July and August, when baby bats, who were born earlier in the summer, join mature bats for nighttime flights. If you can't make it to the park by sunset to see the nightly fly-out, consider getting up early to watch the bats return to the caverns—an equally impressive sight.
Kasanka National Park, Zambia
Between October and December, roughly 10 million straw-colored fruit bats make their home on one hectare of the Kasanka National Park's swamp forest (for comparison, that's five times the number of wildebeests in the Serengeti migration, one of the most famous examples of mass migration in the world). Enticed by the wild fruits that grow in the park, the bats take up residence in trees, roosting during the day and searching for food by night. The straw-colored fruit bat is a subspecies found only in sub-Saharan Africa. Because they eat mostly fruit—a plentiful food source—the bats can weigh up to 11 ounces (with a six-foot wingspan) and live up to 30 years in the wild. The park is relatively accessible, as it's only a five-hour drive (along paved roads) from Zambia's capital city, Lusaka.
Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo
Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo is home to one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Sarawak Chamber. But it's famous for other reasons as well: the caves are also home to more than 12 species of bats. Researchers estimate that between 2.5 and 3.5 million wrinkle-lipped bats live in Deer Cave, another huge cave complex located within the park.
Gunung Mulu has a bat observatory, where visitors can gather each night in anticipation of the evening's exodus from the caves. The observatory is a 45-minute-to-one-hour hike from the park's entrance, so make sure to leave enough time to reach the observatory before sunset.
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Cairns, a city in Australia's second-largest state, Queensland, is home to a huge population of spectacled flying foxes—one of the largest species of bats in the world. Because of its geographic location, acting as a gateway to tropical rainforests of the north (which the bats use as their primary hunting grounds), Cairns is an appealing place for the bats to roost, which they've been doing in huge numbers for years, despite attempts by the Cairns City Council to get them to move on.
Cairns is also home to the Tolga Bat Hospital, which helps promote rehabilitation and conservation of Australian bats. The hospital is open to visitors, who can come learn about bat behavior and conservation while observing several species of bats native to Australia (including the flying fox).
Spandau Citadel: Berlin, Germany
Completed in 1549, Berlin's Spandau Citadel is one of the best-preserved Renaissance fortresses in Europe. But under the citadel's vaulted roof lives a spooky secret: the place is actually home to one of Europe's largest bat colonies, who have spent their winters cozying up in the citadel since its completion. Visitors can check out the 10,000 bats from a separate viewing room, or take a guided tour, offered from summer to early fall, when the bats begin returning for the winter.
Interested in learning about other locations to see bats? Bat Conservation International has created a nifty map of other bat viewing spots around the world.