In the twilight beneath the tree branches of Kampot province’s Banteay Meas district, bats take flight. These nocturnal mammals, often seen as mere creatures of the night, have become a lifeline for some residents.
Here in the village of Srae Thlok, families have found a way to generate income by selling bat droppings. They create roosts for the bats, selling the droppings to brokers who in turn sell them to farmers as a natural fertiliser for crops. This once overlooked commodity is now a source of sustenance.
Chhim Phoeun, a 47-year-old villager, smiles as she tells her story.
“I have two daughters and an eldest son who is 20 years old,” she says, her face lit by the satisfaction of having found a way to support her family.
For the past five years, Phoeun has been involved in bat farming. With the help of her husband, she has constructed four roosts for bats on palm trees within the village. They weld metal into a square around a palm tree, attach dried palm leaves, and within days, the bats begin to inhabit them.
“After making the roosts, within two to three days bats began to occupy them, with a white bat serving as their leader,” Phoeun added.
Although unsure where the bats were coming from, she knew that 16 families in her village were involved in bat farming, all with the primary aim to sell their droppings.
The droppings are carefully collected by spreading a mesh around the base of the palm trees.
“I engage in bat farming primarily to sell their droppings. I am grateful towards the bats, as the income generated from this farming has enabled me to send my children to school. And money earned from bat farming also spends on various celebratory expenses,” she says.
But it’s not just about collecting the droppings. Phoeun emphasises the need to clean the roosts, either once every four days or once a week. When cleaning, the bats fly away, but they return once the roost is reassembled.
Bats are also afraid of bedbugs, snakes and barn owls. Washing the palm leaves to eliminate bedbugs and drying them is part of relocating a roost. Phoeun explains that these predators can cause the bats to abandon a roost, but if the farmer replaces it, the bats will return.
This extraordinary tale of harmony between humans and bats in a small village reveals an unusual yet effective way of life. It showcases not only human ingenuity but also the delicate balance of nature, where even the most overlooked creatures can play a vital role in lives.
Every day, Phoeun collects two to three paint pots full of bat droppings from the four roosts she maintains. She then sells these droppings for 20,000 riel ($5) per paint pot. It’s a humble but lucrative trade in this part of the Kingdom, where the droppings are known to be an excellent fertiliser for fruit crops.
Brokers play a vital role in this supply chain, buying from the farmers and reselling the droppings to other farmers. The bats themselves are almost clockwork in their habits, leaving the roosts at dusk and returning at dawn, their dark forms creating a mesmerising line in the sky.
Pring Sarath, a 37-year-old guano broker, shares his insight into the trade.
“I have been purchasing bat droppings for many years, having inherited the business from my parents. I buy the droppings for 20,000 riel [$5] per paint pot and sell them for a slightly higher price to support my family,” he explains.
His clientele consists mainly of fruit crop farmers in Kampot province.
According to Sarath, bat farmers can collect up to two paint pots of droppings from a single palm tree in just one night and day.
The droppings don’t spoil quickly, so he makes bulk purchases of 100 to 120 paint pots once a week.
“These bats are commonly called palm-leaf bats, but they are distinct from mountain bats due to their slightly larger size than mountain bats,” he adds.
Across Banteay Meas Khang Kaeut commune, six of the eight villages have residents involved in bat farming. Srae Thlok village leads with 16 families, followed by Pou village with 10, and others with fewer.
“They sell bat droppings to improve their livelihoods, combined with their income from rice farming. Bat farming is a low-cost endeavour, as farmers do not have to spend much money. Selling bat droppings is also easy, as brokers are readily available to purchase them,” says Banteay Meas Khang Kaeut commune chief Keo Chanthou.
However, not all view bat droppings as the perfect fertiliser.
Chan Rith, director of the Kampot provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, warns of risks when applied to certain crops.
“Using bat droppings as fertiliser for raw edible crops is generally not advisable. The presentation indicates that applying fresh manure to vegetable crops can cause issues for consumers. However, it’s acceptable to use bat droppings as fertiliser for fruit crops like eggplants,” he advises.
He goes on to explain that compost derived from a mixture of animal manure and plants is considered a high-temperature fertiliser, which means it’s germ-free. Therefore, a preferable fertiliser would combine animal manure, plant leaves and kitchen vegetable scraps.
This unique and sustainable approach to agriculture exemplifies the resourcefulness and creativity found across Cambodia. The relationship between bats and humans, while unusual to some, is a mutually beneficial partnership that continues to thrive. It offers an inspiring lesson in how nature, when understood and respected, can become an integral part of human life and prosperity.