If you had to capture love in a gift, what gift would you pick? Flowers? A ring? A poem? A recently deceased flying mammal most often associated with horror films, Halloween and fear of the dark?
For two Indian researchers and conservationists, it was definitely the last one. And for them, the gift could not be more perfect.
“I guess I wanted to impress him—instead of roses, I’d given him a dead bat,” says Bhargavi Srinivasulu, thinking back to the early days of her courtship of Chelmala Srinivasulu.
Chelmala, clearly smitten with Bhargavi’s gift, responded in kind on the day of their marriage. “The day we got married,” he says, “I saw a poor [dead] bat, and I got the bat and gifted it to her saying, ‘This is your wedding gift.’”
The Srinivasulus have been called the bat man and bat woman of India. The researchers, both at Osmania University in the nation’s city of Hyderabad, say the title suits them. Their work takes them to roosting sites in places from historical buildings and temples to illegal granite mines and subterranean caves—where they carefully observe, collect and biopsy bats. Bhargavi and Chelmala Srinivasulu’s chiropteran-infused love has guided their passion for finding, studying and ultimately helping protect endangered bat species all over India. And it is what launched them on a strange and at times dangerous journey to find a bat that had not been seen in nearly three decades.
The Kolar leaf-nosed bat was described in 1994, but it was last seen in a remote part of southern India in the 1980s. The Srinivasulus did not know where, or even if, the bats still existed in that area—the species’ only known habitat in the world. Bhargavi led the fieldwork but kept in close contact with Chelmala during the expedition in late 2013.
Her team’s journey led to a small village. There, a chance encounter with an older member of the community, who remembered the researchers who first described the species decades prior, led them to a particularly odorous subterranean cave.
The story of what happened next is best told by Bhargavi Srinivasulu herself in this short film.
After the Srinivasulus rediscovered the Kolar leaf-nosed bat, they knew urgent action was needed to protect the species. According to their estimates, just 150 to 200 individuals remained in the one subterranean cave. They published their findings, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated the Kolar leaf-nosed bat “critically endangered.”
The Srinivasulus knew that without the help of the local community, their conservation efforts would fail. Illegal mining operations in the area would likely go on, and residents would probably continue to treat the bats as pests. (The villagers had been known to smoke roosting sites because they did not like the smell of guano or were afraid of the animals.)
Over two years, the researchers reached out to local villagers and schools, explaining why they should work together to protect the bats. They explained that the animals are not pests or dangerous but are, in fact, an integral part of the ecosystem. The villagers wrote to government officials, and the Srinivasulus gave presentations to local governments and the forest department.
On January 9, 2019, their hard work paid off when the region was declared a protected area, and the mining operations were stopped.
For the Srinivasulus, the victory was sweet but not a reason to rest. Although the Kolar leaf-nosed bat’s only known home is now protected, the species is still critically endangered and requires more monitoring and studies. It is also just one out of 100 bat species in India that need to be studied and protected. “I feel like it’s just a beginning,” Bhargavi Srinivasulu says. “Ninety-nine more species of bats to go—we need to protect all of them.”