Rachel LEONG, Tropimundo master’s student – AY 2020/21

Human dimensions of bat conservation in view of the COVID-19 pandemic – an urban perspective

Even though bats are very diverse, play key ecological roles and render vital ecosystem services, they have a high endangerment rate due to various human activities. These activities include persecution – whether in reaction to human-bat conflicts or to bats’ undeservedly bad reputation (mainly the result of them being misunderstood). The COVID-19 pandemic and media reporting (accurate or not) on the link between bats and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has made things worse, as shown, for example, by increases in the indiscriminate killing of bats. Clearly, successfully conserving bats (and wildlife in general) hinges on modifying and understanding human behaviours, including what drives them.

Rachel is a Singaporean, Erasmus Mundus student. In June, 2020, when she approached me to supervise her master’s research, she was enrolled at Université Libre de Bruxelles and was planning to spend a year at Université de La Réunion. This was also three months after the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and I was becoming increasingly curious and concerned about its impact on bats and their persecution. It had occurred to me that Cheryl YIP’s study might provide useful baseline data to assess whether and how COVID has changed Singaporeans’ attitudes toward and knowledge of bats. And when I proposed this as a thesis topic to Rachel, she ran with it.

Rachel used mixed methods to explore the human dimensions of bat conservation in Singapore and ultimately deliver evidence-based recommendations to manage and protect them.

First, she used a quantitative survey to measure bat-related attitudes and knowledge with structural equation modelling to understand the antecedents. As it turns out, COVID-19 appears to have had no impact, including on local interest in bats (e.g., searching for information about them). Rachel also asked how these antecedents affect local perceptions of ecosystem services (ES) and disservices (ED) by bats. Singaporeans generally appreciate the ES but are concerned about the ED. Appreciating cultural ES is linked to holding positive attitudes (affect & behaviour) toward bats, while appreciating RES is linked to knowing more about bats and having more positive attitudes.

Finally, Rachel used Q method (for a quick and dirty description of Q-method, see WONG Zi Jin’s project) to conduct a stakeholder discourse analysis on the conservation and management of bats in Singapore. Her work reveals three key discourses (distinct perspectives).

  1. This highly ecocentric viewpoint maintains that we should conserve bats for their intrinsic value and that doing so is our ethical obligation.
  2. This highly anthropocentric viewpoint outright rejects the idea of conserving bats because of the perceived public-health threat they pose and/or their unwanted behaviours, such as roosting in buildings and eating fruits.
  3. This viewpoint identifies negative attitudes and behaviours toward bats (possibly stemming from a disconnection from Nature) as the biggest conservation threat to bats. As such, the priority should be on educating locals and enhancing general appreciation for biodiversity.

Ultimately, the top recommendation deriving from Rachel’s work is that the government should assess and improve bat-related attitudes and beliefs so citizens will be more supportive of conserving them for their inherent worth and their roles in maintaining Singapore’s ecosystems.

On 30 August, Rachel successfully defended her thesis (congratulations !). She is now moving forward with plans to do a PhD in the lab of Prof Camille Lebarbenchon, who co-supervised her master’s project with me. Camille specialises in the ecology and evolution of emerging zoonotic viruses – Rachel will ultimately be a very well-rounded bat researcher, with molecular and human-dimensions expertise.