'Bat Man' Educates Farmers, Tequila Producers On The Environmental Effects Of Bats

Published: Thursday, June 14, 2018 - 10:13am
Updated: Thursday, October 11, 2018 - 12:13pm
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Bill Radke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Lesser long-nosed bat.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The average bat doesn't turn into a vampire. It's also not very likely to try to suck your blood. But those perceptions persist, that bats are out to get us. But bats, in particular the lesser long-nosed bat, are vital when it comes to having a positive environmental effect. They also pollinate agave, which a lot of people are fans of when it becomes tequila. Professor Roderigo Medellin of the National Autonomous University of Mexico is affectionately known as "Bat Man" for the work he's done in trying to change the perception of bats and educate farmers and tequila producers on the importance of bats to the product. Professor Medellin joins me via Skype. So Professor, we have learned how important bees are to humans and the environment. How important are bats and why do most of us not understand that importance?

RODRIGO MEDELLIN: Bats are probably some of the most unfairly treated animals in the world. There are many species of animals that have a negative connotation, a negative image to them, like sharks, like snakes, like spiders, scorpions, and bats. None of those and many others, none does more for our welfare everyday well-being than bats. Basically, bats provide three main ecosystem services that we can summarize very quickly. Number one, bats destroy tons and tons of agricultural pests every night. For example, we have estimated that just in the northern states of Mexico, from Sonora to Tamaulipas, we estimate about 20 to 40 million bats of a single species. Mexico has 138 species. We're talking about this one species — 20 to 40 million bats. Each million bats destroy 10 tons of insects every night. The second one is seed dispersal. There's many ecologically and economically important species of plants that we use for our food, we use for restoration of forests, etc, etc, etc., that rely on bats for their dispersal, for the dispersal of their seeds. We, ourselves, enjoy a lot of those fruits, especially when we are in tropical areas everywhere in the world. Number three, pollination — we have, in the case of Mexico, a very clear example of these animals touching the identity and the spirit of an entire country. As a Mexican, I am really proud of my country and I have to tell you that part of that pride comes from our national beverage — tequila and mezcal and Bacanora, and all of those things that are extracted from agaves, and agaves rely heavily on the bats to carry out their pollination.

GOLDSTEIN: Has it been a challenge for you to convince tequila producers, to convince others of the importance of bats? Considering how many species of bats are on the endangered species list in the U.S., how have you gotten people to realize the importance of bats, especially when it comes to tequila?

MEDELLIN: Whenever you talk about bats, you capture the attention of people. I will give them the facts. I will give them the evidence. I will give them the images, and from then on, and this has happened to me every time I speak in public or I talk to one individual or whatever, they become bat defenders from then on. So it's basically the need to really mainstream the concept that bats are much more beneficial to us than we ever expected or we ever suspected.

GOLDSTEIN: So let's talk practically about what farmers, what tequila producers have done thanks to your convincing arguments. What sort of action have they taken?

MEDELLIN: For more than 20 years, close to 25 years now, I have been trying to reach out to the tequila industry, to try to explain to them that they do have this fantastic thing — the tequila, mezcal, and so on — because of the fact that bats pollinate their agaves and therefore, they rely on those animals to make sure that these agaves continue their evolution, their adaptation to the natural world, their survival as a species. Only three years ago, finally, we got in contact with five families of tequila producers and mezcal producers and explained this to them and they were really committed. This is people who have been in the industry for four, five, six generations and they know the need. But nobody had explained it to them. So once you explain it again, with evidence, with graphics, with data, with fact, then of course, they come and join us. So in this situation then, what we have now is an incredible programming, which we have. Only two years ago, we launched 300,000 bottles of bat-friendly tequila into the world and this number's growing and the number of companies are growing. So we really hope that we are on a very good and positive course right now.

GOLDSTEIN: Do continue to see the momentum going in this direction? Is there anything that may be a pitfall?

MEDELLIN: Well, there is always pitfalls, but I think we are navigating the course very, very, very well. We have a commitment and the joining of many sectors of society. It's not only the producers anymore. Right now, a very big and growing group of bartenders are the ones that are bringing these messages to the public. They sit down with their customer and they talk about bats and they talk about agaves and they talk about bat-friendly tequila and of course, the consumer loves the concept, and of course, you know, this is a perfect conversation to have down at a bar, where you're with your pal right there and a bartender comes and tells you, "Have you heard about bat-friendly tequila?" And of course, it's going to get the attention of the public.

GOLDSTEIN: Rodrigo Medellin, aka "Bat Man," is a senior professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. 

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The average bat doesn't turn into a vampire. It's also not very likely to try to suck your blood. But those perceptions persist, that bats are out to get us. But bats, in particular the lesser long-nosed bat, are vital when it comes to having a positive environmental effect. They also pollinate agave, which a lot of people are fans of when it becomes tequila. Professor Roderigo Medellin of the National Autonomous University of Mexico is affectionately known as "Bat Man" for the work he's done in trying to change the perception of bats and educate farmers and tequila producers on the importance of bats to the product. Professor Medellin joins me via Skype. So Professor, we have learned how important bees are to humans and the environment. How important are bats and why do most of us not understand that importance?

 

RODRIGO MEDELLIN: Bats are probably some of the most unfairly treated animals in the world. There are many species of animals that have a negative connotation, a negative image to them, like sharks, like snakes, like spiders, scorpions, and bats. None of those and many others, none does more for our welfare everyday well-being than bats. Basically, bats provide three main ecosystem services that we can summarize very quickly. Number one, bats destroy tons and tons of agricultural pests every night. For example, we have estimated that just in the northern states of Mexico, from Sonora to Tamaulipas, we estimate about 20 to 40 million bats of a single species. Mexico has 138 species. We're talking about this one species — 20 to 40 million bats. Each million bats destroy ten tons of insects every night. The second one is seed dispersal. There's many ecologically and economically important species of plants that we use for our food, we use for restoration of forests, etc, etc, etc., that rely on bats for their dispersal, for the dispersal of their seeds. We, ourselves, enjoy a lot of those fruits, especially when we are in tropical areas everywhere in the world. Number three, pollination — we have, in the case of Mexico, a very clear example of these animals touching the identity and the spirit of an entire country. As a Mexican, I am really proud of my country and I have to tell you that part of that pride comes from our national beverage — tequila and mezcal and Bacanora, and all of those things that are extracted from agaves, and agaves rely heavily on the bats to carry out their pollination.

 

GOLDSTEIN: Has it been a challenge for you to convince tequila producers, to convince others of the importance of bats? Considering how many species of bats are on the endangered species list in the U.S., how have you gotten people to realize the importance of bats, especially when it comes to tequila?

 

MEDELLIN: Whenever you talk about bats, you capture the attention of people. I will give them the facts. I will give them the evidence. I will give them the images, and from then on, and this has happened to me every time I speak in public or I talk to one individual or whatever, they become bat defenders from then on. So it's basically the need to really mainstream the concept that bats are much more beneficial to us than we ever expected or we ever suspected.

 

GOLDSTEIN: So let's talk practically about what farmers, what tequila producers have done thanks to your convincing arguments. What sort of action have they taken?

 

MEDELLIN: For more than 20 years, close to 25 years now, I have been trying to reach out to the tequila industry, to try to explain to them that they do have this fantastic thing — the tequila, mezcal, and so on — because of the fact that bats pollinate their agaves and therefore, they rely on those animals to make sure that these agaves continue their evolution, their adaptation to the natural world, their survival as a species. Only three years ago, finally, we got in contact with five families of tequila producers and mezcal producers and explained this to them and they were really committed. This is people who have been in the industry for four, five, six generations and they know the need. But nobody had explained it to them. So once you explain it again, with evidence, with graphics, with data, with fact, then of course, they come and join us. So in this situation then, what we have now is an incredible programming, which we have. Only two years ago, we launched 300,000 bottles of bat-friendly tequila into the world and this number's growing and the number of companies are growing. So we really hope that we are on a very good and positive course right now.

 

GOLDSTEIN: Do continue to see the momentum going in this direction? Is there anything that may be a pitfall?

 

MEDELLIN: Well, there is always pitfalls, but I think we are navigating the course very, very, very well. We have a commitment and the joining of many sectors of society. It's not only the producers anymore. Right now, a very big and growing group of bartenders are the ones that are bringing these messages to the public. They sit down with their customer and they talk about bats and they talk about agaves and they talk about bat-friendly tequila and of course, the consumer loves the concept, and of course, you know, this is a perfect conversation to have down at a bar, where you're with your pal right there and a bartender comes and tells you, "Have you heard about bat-friendly tequila?" And of course, it's going to get the attention of the public.

 

GOLDSTEIN: Rodrigo Medellin, a.k.a. "Bat Man," is a senior professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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