When V Mariappan was appointed as a watchman by a private college on Katcheri Road in Virudhunagar nearly 30 years ago, it was to watch over a tract of unused land of a nearby temple that was used for parking of two-wheelers of institution staff.
But over the years, he has also been standing guard over a large group of megabats (also known as fruit bats) that have made the area home.
“There are around 8,000-10,000 bats that live on six trees in the area and these have been here ever since I joined work 30 years ago,” Mariappan explains, pointing to the parking facility located on land of the Pilliyar Koil. Like their nocturnal brethren, these fruit bats leave their habitat at night, travel long distances for food before returning early in the morning. They leave the trees around 7.30 pm and go to the forest area of the Sathuragiri Hills near Srivilliputhur to feed on fruits before returning by 4.30 am the next day, notes Mariappan, who has grown accustomed to the bats’ habits.
Mariappan says, “I was appointed as a watchman in this place to safeguard the vehicles but in my own interest I also try to protect these bats from people who may try to hurt them. I feel happy about it.”
Providing details about the behaviour of fruit bats, an official of the Forest Department said that they tend to stay in large colonies and are capable of travelling long distances in search of food. They feed mostly on fruits in forest areas. The officials explained that the fruit bats play a vital role in sustaining the local ecosystem by helping in pollination and dispersal of seeds. After eating fruits, the bats disperse the seeds, helping in the growth of trees, which in turn replenish the green cover in forests.