Bats play a vital role in ecosystems, providing valuable services such as pollination, pest control and soil fertilisation. However, bats are also known as a reservoir for many viruses including coronaviruses, Nipah virus and rabies.

Living Safely with Bats: A collaboration

The USAID PREDICT Program, in collaboration with partners including Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance, have developed a book titled “Living Safely with Bats” to provide guidance for communities on how to live safely with bats, originally published in English and Chinese.

“Living Safely with Bats” has been translated from English and Chinese into Malay, Dusun and Murut by the Conservation Medicine team.

One Health community education

The Conservation Medicine team has been conducting One Health community education programmes since 2016. In 2019 our mission was to translate the book into Bahasa Malaysia, and Dusun, distribute the books to the indigenous and rural communities in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah that we work with, and organise a series of community meetings to share the details in the bat book.

The importance of bats

As part of our One Health programme, we share the information in the bat book, explain the importance of bats to the local ecosystem, discuss how these communities can live safely with bats, and distribute copies of the book to ensure they reach as many individuals as possible. Our goal is to educate these communities on diseases from bats, how they can be transmitted, how to prevent disease spillover into the local human population, how ecologically important bats are, and that disease spillover is a direct result of human activity – not the fault of the bats.

"Disease spillover is a direct result of human activity - not the fault of the bats."

How we reach indigenous communities

Reaching some of the indigenous villages we work in is not an easy task especially during the monsoon season. The journey can be up to 12 hours, driving on muddy and slippery off-road trails to reach the communities.

These journeys are not only challenging logistically, but also serve as stark reminder of the rapid rates of land-use change. We see the change in the landscape each time we return, reducing the forest area for wildlife and increasing contact and conflict between wildlife and these communities sharing the ever-shrinking forest.

This challenging situation does not impact our team’s enthusiasm, but only serves as a reminder of how important these community outreach programs are.

The journey to reach rural communities is often an adventure, and a stark reminder of the pressures created by deforestation and land-use change.

Engaging indigenous communities, protecting ecosystems

This massive logistical effort is certainly worthwhile when we are greeted by the community, including some of the youngest and oldest residents, all gathering to join in the meeting. We have found that community participants really enjoy the presentation and play a very active role in the discussions, asking questions on how they can live more safely with bats. While these communities tend to live sustainably with the environment and have much to teach us, it is still wonderful to see some people connecting the dots for the first time when it comes to the ecosystem services provided by bats in their daily lives and therefore how vital it is to protect these important animals.

Field coordinator Jimmy Lee presenting the bat book to the indigenous students and villagers at Pos Balar, Gua Musang.

A successful programme with expansion planned

To date, we have conducted community meeting with 4 communities in Sabah and 9 on Peninsular Malaysia. 829 people have attended these community meetings, 95 bat books were provided in Malay and 10 in the Dusun language to community leaders and the schools in each community. More recently we have also translated the bat book into the Murut language to aid future community meetings with communities who rely on subsistence hunting in southern Sabah near the border with Kalimantan.

The bat book has been well received by the communities we work with, and we plan to continue and expand these community education programmes to create a safer One Health environment.

Field coordinator Jimmy Lee presenting the bat book to the indigenous students at Sekolah Kebangsaan Pos Tohoi, Kuala Kangsar.