Are sacred caves still safe havens for the endemic bats of Madagascar?

02 Mar 2018

Despite conservation discourses in Madagascar increasingly emphasizing the role of customary institutions for wildlife management, we know relatively little about their effectiveness. Here, we used semi-structured interviews (n = 54 adults in 8 villages) to investigate whether sacred caves and taboos offer in situ conservation benefits for cave-dwelling bats in and around Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, Southwest Madagascar. Although some caves were described as sites of spiritual significance for the local communities, most interviewees (~76%) did not recognize their present-day sacred status. Similarly, only 22% of the interviewees recognized taboos inhibiting bat hunting and consumption. In general, legal protection of both bats and caves was often more acknowledged than customary regulations, although up to 30% of the interviewees reported bat bushmeat consumption within their communities. Guano extraction was often tolerated in sacred caves, in exchange for economic compensations. In view of these results, our study questions the extent to which sacred sites, taboos and legal frameworks offer protection for bats in Madagascar. These results align with previous studies documenting the erosion of customary institutions in Madagascar, including the loss of the spiritual values underpinning sacred sites. Guano harvesting may benefit bat conservation, although it is often performed through destructive and exploitative practices with low benefits for the local communities. Given that many Malagasy bats are cave-dwelling species and that most depend on the customary protection of these sites, it remains paramount to better understand the complex interactions between spiritual practices, taboos and protected areas in sustaining ‒or not‒ bat diversity.