In his quest to save bats, Dr Rodrigo Medellín has not only engaged in massive research but has also had to rehabilitate their reputation which has been ruined by Gothic horror literary tradition.
In the years Dr Rodrigo Medellín has spent researching, teaching and campaigning to save bats in Mexico, his finest moment came on 19 October 2013, when, at a press conference with Mexican government and environmental officials, the lesser long-nosed bat was declared no longer at risk of extinction.
“This was historic – the first documented case of the recovery of a species of mammal in Mexico,” says Medellín, who was selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards. “Good news in conservation is rare, so we needed to announce this in a big way. The media, TV, press and radio, all gave it good coverage.”
As head of the Program for the Conservation of Bats of Mexico, which he founded in 1994, Medellín has faced many obstacles in his quest to save bats locally and globally. But, he says, the worst barrier is ignorance.
“Bats are the most unfairly treated species in the world,” he declares. “We kill spiders and snakes too, but the benefits from bats are much bigger. If you’re working for the conservation of whales, you don’t have an image problem. We [bat conservationists] are starting way behind the line, we’re at a major disadvantage.”
The bat’s negative image, says Medellín, “all comes from one book, Dracula [published in 1897], written by Bram Stoker. I love the book, but, before it was written, the word ‘vampire’ applied to some [mythical] blood-sucking humans in Eastern Europe, with no link to bats. Stoker needed to find a form for vampires to move quickly, and he found historical references to bats biting Spanish conquistadores and their horses. So he made his vampires turn into bats.”
Education to address this myth, along with research and conservation activities, comprises the strategy that Medellín and his team have designed and implemented. And, he says, attitudes are beginning to change.
Changing attitudes have been key to saving the lesser long-nosed bat, which was previously officially classified as ‘threatened’. “I’ve been following 13 colonies of this bat in Mexico for over 20 years. In the past 15 years, all the colonies have stabilized or grown. The biggest colony has 300,000 bats, all pregnant or lactating females. So last year, I met with the Ministry of the Environment and we agreed the species had recovered.”
Of Mexico’s 138 bat species, 18 are now endangered or threatened. Sadly, despite his success with the lesser long-nosed bat, Medellín is not optimistic about the immediate future: “We still have a lot of work to do. I’m working hard with four other species [of bats], but I’m not sure if I will see another species recover in my lifetime.”
Medellín says the arguments for protecting bats are strong, and everyone should be concerned about bat conservation: “Bats have very strong ties to our everyday life and to the quality of our lives,” he says. “The first is pest control – bats kill bugs in cotton, rice and corn fields, so they protect crops. For example, in northern Mexico, there are some 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. A million of these will eat 10 tonnes of insects in just one night. If these bats didn’t exist, those crops would be destroyed by insects in a few months.
Bats and tequila
“Secondly, bats disperse seeds for many plants, particularly fruit trees in Latin America, Africa and Asia. And, thirdly, many plants rely on bats for pollination. For example, the famous durian fruit, which is worth US$170 million to the Thai economy alone, depends on bats for pollination of its plants. And, as a Mexican, part of my identity is my love of tequila. The plant from which tequila is made needs bats for pollination. Can you imagine a world without tequila? I’m sorry, I cannot!” Over the past decade, Medellín’s international profile has grown, making him one of the world’s most respected experts on bats. In 2007, he created the Network for Conservation of Bats in Latin America (RELCOM), which now has 21 countries as members. In 2012, he played a key role in the establishment of another major regional group, Bat Conservation Africa, with 20 countries expressing interest. He is co-chair of the Bat Specialist Group for the IUCN.
He is also the subject of a recent BBC2 documentary. Medellín says the BBC expressed interest in his work after he became the first recipient of the Whitley Gold Award in 2012. A video was prepared for the Whitley presentation, with British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough narrating. “At a reception after the event, I sat for two golden hours with Sir David, discussing my work. From there, the BBC picked up that I had won the award and that Attenborough had narrated the video.
“In 2013, a BBC film crew came and travelled with me to 10 Mexican states. The resulting film, Natural World: the Batman of Mexico, was a finalist for the biggest wildlife award, the Wildscreen Panda Award.
As well as being shown on Britain’s BBC2, Natural World: The Batman of Mexico will be released on the Animal Planet channel in 2015.Learn more about Rodrigo Medellín