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Andhra’s‘praying’ bats get saviours

- villagers protect & feed mammals in tamarind groves

Hyderabad, Nov. 5: If the fictional Gotham’s bat-like superhero protects humans, India’s real-life batmen from coastal Andhra are returning the favour.

For half a century, the twin villages of Kovilampadu and Jargumalli have been striking a blow for biodiversity by religiously protecting the thousands of bats sheltering in their tamarind groves.

“We are doing our bit to save the animal, which has been living in our village for generations,” said 90-year-old D. Koti Reddy in Jargumalli, 347km from Hyderabad.

The villagers fondly call these flying mammals “tapas paskhulu (praying birds)” because of their habit of hanging upside down from branches, “as if doing penance”.

“We consider paying a visit to the bats as auspicious before starting any important project,” said Kovilampadu farmer Chenna Keshava Reddy.

To avoid disturbing the bats, the villagers do not touch the tamarind trees or pluck their fruits, which are banned anyway because the groves are forest areas.

They feed the animals every day, leaving under the trees honey and fruits such as mangoes, guavas, papayas and bananas. Bats commonly survive on fruits and insects, which they hunt at night.

Asked why the bats had chosen these villages, the district forest officer in Prakasam, K.N. Narasimha Reddy, said bats prefer a humid climate and tall and sturdy trees for roosting.

Kovilampadu and Jargumalli are now the only villages with tamarind groves in the area. The forest department had planted the trees at many places along the coast in the Raj era to check erosion, but the cyclones of 1979 and 1995 destroyed most of the groves.

“But here, we helped the forest department replant them for the sake of our guests (the bats),” said Indiramma of Jargumalli.

“The bats play a key role in pollination and promoting greenery, and their excreta is rich in manure. We don’t allow outsiders to cause any harm to them,” said weaver and poultry farmer G. Rasool Reddy at Kovilampadu.

If a young bat falls to the ground, the villagers stand guard to prevent birds from eating them.

Bats are anyway protected under Indian wildlife laws but these twin villages’ effort stands out, said forest officer Reddy. “We leave the fallen tamarind fruit to the villagers as an honorarium for guarding the nocturnal animals,” he said.

He said these “megabats” belong to the genus Pteropus under the suborder Megachiropetra. They are commonly known as “fruit bats” or “flying foxes”.

The forest department makes seasonal surveys of the groves, removes the dead mammals and sprays chemicals to kill pests.

“We want the government to put our village on the state’s tourist and environment map so that wildlife enthusiasts visit us and guide us,” said Jargumalli sarpanch Ramchandra Reddy.

He demanded government funds to remove the stench around the trees. “The bats may be a good omen but their excreta smell real bad,” Reddy said.