ONGOING FIELD RESEARCH PROJECT
“Ecological Relationships among Buddhist Monks, Sacred Caves, Bats, and Forests in Thailand: Implications for Biodiversity Conservation”
The use of caves for religious practices by individuals and groups extends back in time for at least several millennia in India. The Buddha dwelled and meditated in caves, forests, and other kinds of natural sites, practices which became common for Buddhist monks and nuns during his lifetime and beyond. Whenever Buddhism spread beyond India into other parts of Asia the religious use of caves spread as well. Caves serve monks and nuns as secluded and peaceful places for monastic life, meditation, and chanting. A holy person might dwell in a cave for merely a few days or for months or even years.
Caves are also inhabited by bats, and some species roost mainly or exclusively in caves. Bats are one of the most widely distributed groups of mammals in the whole world, being found on every continent except Antarctica. They are also one of the most numerous mammals. Nearly 1,000 species of bats comprise about one fourth of all mammalian species. In addition, some bat colonies are the largest concentrations of mammalian populations on Earth with thousands or even millions of individuals. Like humans and other mammals, bats are warm blooded, hairy, give birth to live young, and nurse their young with milk.
As a keystone species, bats play a disproportionate role in an ecosystem and the extirpation of a population or extinction of a whole species would precipitate far reaching ecological changes. Fruit-eating bats are particularly important in both pollination and seed dispersal. The distances bats fly in foraging vary with the type and availability of their preferred foods. In tropical forests, for example, bats must fly over extensive distances to locate widely scattered trees with appropriate fruit, some making nightly round trips of 40-50 kilometers between their cave and foraging areas.
About 70% of the species of bats worldwide are insectivores (insect-eaters). Bats are the only major predator limiting the populations of nocturnal insects like mosquitoes. A single colony of bats can consume hundreds of tons of insects annually, many of the latter considered agricultural pests.
At the same time bats are an especially vulnerable group of animals because they are the slowest reproducing mammal in the world for their body size, most species producing only one young annually. Also many bat species are rare, occurring in only a few habitat types and with a restricted geographical range. The major factors threatening or endangering bat populations and species are habitat destruction (roosting locations and depletion of critical food resources); poisoning from chemical pesticides; and human over-exploitation (for food, tourism, and other economic uses).
This is where Buddhist sacred caves most likely play an important ecological role. Sacred caves usually discourage, if not completely exclude, the harassment or exploitation of the fauna therein and often even nearby, consequently promoting the conservation of roosting bats. This in turn facilitates the role of bats as keystone species in forests and other ecosystems which may be a long distance from the caves. Indeed, sacred caves may be one component of a very ancient, widespread, and diverse system of sacred places throughout much of Asia which traditionally had far reaching significance for environmental and biodiversity conservation. These and related ideas are being explored in Thailand with a multi-disciplinary field research team during successive summers.
Leslie E. Sponsel
Director, Ecological Anthropology Program and Spiritual Ecology Concentration, University of Hawai`i, Honolulu, Hawai`i
Director, Buddhist Studies, Chaminade University, Honolulu, Hawai`i
PREVIOUS PUBLICATIONS OF PARTICULAR RELEVANCE
Sponsel, Leslie E., 2001, “Do Anthropologists Need Religion, and Vice Versa?,” New Directions in Anthropology and Environment: Intersections, Carole L. Crumley, ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 177-200.
Sponsel, Leslie E., and Poranee Natadecha Sponsel, 1997, “A Theoretical Analysis of the Potential Contribution of the Monastic Community in Promoting a Green Society in Thailand,” Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Williams, eds., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 45-68.
Sponsel, Leslie E., Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Nukul Ruttanadakul, and Somporn Juntadach, 1998, "Sacred and/or Secular Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation in Thailand," Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 2(1):155-167.
Sponsel, Leslie E., and Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, 2003, “Buddhist Views of Nature and the Environment,” Nature Across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures, Helaine Selin, ed., Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 351-371.
Sponsel, Leslie E., and Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, 2003, "Illuminating Darkness: The Monk-Cave-Bat-Ecosystem Complex in Thailand," in Socially Engaged Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sulak Sivaraksa on His 70th Birthday, David W. Chappell, ed., Bangkok, Thailand: Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation, pp. 255-270. (Reprinted in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., 2004, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 134-144).
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Bat Conservation International
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