Caves have been held in awe by humans for millennia. Not only have they offered us shelter and accommodated potential prey, for many societies they also held a profound spiritual significance, acting as a final resting place for the ancestors and often being perceived as gateways to the afterlife.

This sacred status that many societies have granted to caves has generally been beneficial for cave-dwelling species, sheltered from disturbance through culturally-accepted norms of conduct. Yet, across the globe, the traditional values and institutions that have maintained these cultural practices are rapidly eroding and, consequently, the customary protection granted to cave-dwelling wildlife is no longer guaranteed. One place in which caves have a tremendous cultural and spiritual significance is the diverse island of Madagascar. Across the country, caves support a wide array of wildlife species, many of which are protected through an extensive system of species-specific taboos (fadys), shaping social behaviour and cultural practices around wildlife.

There are over 40 species of bats in Madagascar, the majority being endemic to the country. Some of them, such as the Vulnerable Madagascan fruit bat Eidolon dupreanum and the Near Threatened Commerson’s leaf-nosed bat Hipposideros commersoni, are declining across the island and researchers suspected that the erosion of cultural values that have up-to-now allowed bats to safely roost in sacred caves could play a role in some of these declines.

In order to collect empirical evidence about the conservation relevance of sacred caves for bat conservation in Madagascar, an interdisciplinary team of conservation researchers from the Global Change and Conservation (GCC) Lab of the University of Helsinki (Finland), set course to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, in southwestern Madagascar. Here, the team explored local attitudes towards bats and sacred caves among two ethnic groups (Tanalana and Vezo) inhabiting semi-arid areas around the National Park. In parallel to conducting semi-structured interviews with the local communities, the team sampled bats in four sacred caves, revealing that at least six species roost in the karstic caves found in the area and that some species, such as the brightly coloured rufous trident bat Triaenops rufus, have important maternity colonies in sacred caves.

The team’s work, now published in Oryx, revealed that sacred caves were often perceived as spaces at the interface between the natural and supernatural worlds, and that bats were believed to roam at the junction between the physical and spiritual realms, protecting treasures out of human reach. Interviewees reported avoiding going inside the caves, mainly due to fear of being harmed by the spirits. However, only one in every five interviewees recognized bat-related fadys inhibiting bat hunting and consumption, and bat-related taboos were more widely recognized than the sacredness of caves. The lack of knowledge about the legal regulations associated with the protected area was also remarkably high; yet, the existence of the National Park was acknowledged more often than customary institutions.

Up to one third of the interviewees reported consumption of bats in their communities, and, in an extreme portrayal of the importance of bats for food security in times of scarcity, several accounts reported that in 2007, during a period of acute drought, massive numbers of bats were hunted with fire in one of the sacred caves. According to several informants, these bats “fed 200 people for two months”.

Although bat bushmeat trade is common across Madagascar, no evidence of this was found in the study area. The collection of guano was mentioned as one of the most important sources of income at the community level, and industrial guano extraction was often tolerated in certain sacred sites in exchange for economic compensations. The authors report that although guano extraction can lead to disturbance-driven displacements of bat colonies, the economic gains derived from guano collection could eventually raise the motivation to conserve bats and their habitats in Madagascar and beyond. As an example of this, one Tanalana man interviewed stated “Now the parents tell the kids to protect the caves. In 2014 there was a company who came and sold all the guano”. Interestingly, none of the people extracting guano reported any sacred values or taboos in relation to caves. And similarly, none of the people that recognized caves as sacred extracted guano.

Conservation discourses in Madagascar increasingly emphasize the role of sacred sites and taboos for sustainable wildlife management. Yet, this new study questions their present-day effectiveness in conserving bats. The authors stress that if the spiritual values associated with both bats and caves vanish, the effectiveness of the sacred sites for protecting Malagasy bat populations will be in jeopardy. Unfortunately, in the light of rapidly shifting cultural practices, sacred caves are not necessarily a safe haven for the numerous cave-dwelling bat species of Madagascar.

The paper, “Are sacred caves still safe havens for the endemic bats of Madagascar?” is available Open Access in the journal Oryx.

Photo credits: Adrià López-Baucells

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