“If I were to make an organization chart of the most important mammals in the world,” naturalist Rodrigo Orozco once told me, “I would put bats at the very top of the chart. Every night nectar-eating bats do the same kind of pollination work that bees do by day.
“At the same time, fruit-eating bats spread seeds far and wide, creating biodiversity, while insect-eating bats prevent bugs from multiplying out of control. Believe it or not, I would rate the bat as the most important mammal in the world. Without it, the human race wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Unfortunately, bats are also among the most unloved and misunderstood creatures in the world. Such was the case decades ago in Mexico, when researchers discovered that bat populations in caves south of the United States border were dropping drastically, in many cases by as much as 90%.
One of the causes was the widespread use of insecticides and another was “the war against bats” being waged by ranchers all over Mexico who would seal up caves or set fires inside them trying to kill bats, all of whom they believed to be vampires. Sadly, most of those bats were actually insect, nectar or fruit eaters, all of them vitally important to the environment.
On to the scene came National Autonomous University biologist Rodrigo A. Medellín, who first worked to get the lesser long-nosed bat on the endangered species list both in Mexico and the U.S. and then researched the 1500-kilometer “Nectar Corridor” the bats traditionally followed while traversing Mexico south to north.
Medellín’s award-winning work in establishing some 30 “safe caves” resulted in such an increase in bat populations that, after 20 years, this “tequila bat” became the first mammal to be taken off Mexico’s federal list of endangered species — and Rodrigo Medellín became known all around the world as “The Bat Man of Mexico.”
I first heard the story of Medellín’s fight to save bats from Salvador “Chava” Rosales while sipping Siembra Valles Ancestral at the Cascahuín Distillery. It is one of Mexico’s oldest tequilerías and one of the few still producing Mexico’s favorite spirits “the good old way,” in the little town of El Arenal, Jalisco, 25 kilometers west of Guadalajara.
Rosales, Cascahuín’s production manager, then introduced me to TIP, the Tequila Interchange Project:
“This project originated with David Suro and Rodrigo Medellín. It asks tequila and mezcal producers to let five per cent of every hectare of their agaves flower, so bats can pollinate them, benefiting both bats and business.
“The way we reproduce agaves now — by replanting the little ‘clones’ that grow around the parent plant — has drastically reduced the genetic diversity of our plants. Medellín brought all this up to the tequila board many years ago and they considered him crazy.”
If left on its own an agave produces an amazingly fast-growing quiote or stalk near the end of its life and all of its energy (meaning all of its sugar) is used to produce the stalk, the flowers and the seeds.
“We tequila producers,” Rosales told me, “used to consider that quiote ‘El Chamuco’ (the devil) because it meant we would lose all the sugar from that agave, and we would rush to cut it off. So this new approach takes some time to get used to. De veras, we had no idea at what time of the year the plant flowers.
“The first time we had to keep a lookout, and when the flowers appeared we called Rodrigo Medellín: ‘Come quick!’ and he started measuring how much sugar was still in the plant and how much went into the flower, and what kind of insects were attracted.
“Then they stayed all night to catch the bats and see whether or not they were covered with pollen. And we saw that — even after 100 years of not drinking nectar from those flowers, the bats still remembered, and they pollinated them!
“Now we are starting to look at our fields with new eyes. We always have spots where it’s not practical to plant agaves for one reason or another, like rocky patches or at the very edge of our property. Now we are thinking: ‘Wait a minute, let’s plant agaves there and leave them for the bats.’”
Rosales calls TIP a pilot program organized among three friends: the owners of Tequila Tapatío, Casa Siete Leguas and Cascahuín. TIP has begun by releasing two bat-friendly tequilas in the U.S.: Siembra Valles Ancestral and Tequila Ocho, along with one mezcal: Don Mateo de la Sierra.
“But many other distilleries are lining up to get on the bandwagon,” added Rosales.
Later, I Skyped Rodrigo Medellín in his office at UNAM, Mexico’s national university, and asked him how the bat-friendly tequila project got started.
“It goes back 23 years,” said the professor, “to when I first tried to explain to the tequila industry that they owe their very significant profits to this little creature that flies at night, and that by using nothing but clonal shoots to replant their fields they were losing a big chunk of their genetic diversity.
“I told them I thought it was very paradoxical to think that they plant millions of agaves but don’t allow a single one to bloom. I said, ‘You only have tequila today because the bats have pollinated it for millions of years! It’s time for you to start investing: not only because you owe it to the bats, but because of your own self-interest.’
“I told them that in 1994 for the first time and the Tequila Regulatory Council said, ‘Oh, what a nice project, thanks for coming to see us, but don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
“Well, they never did. Then, 10 years later, in 2004, I went back again, with a paper that a friend of mine had just published showing that over 160 million agaves were clones of just two individuals. So, basically, the genetic diversity was zero.
“Then I told them: you are playing with fire here. All it takes is one of your plants to be diseased and then all of your plants — because they are exact copies of each other — are going to be diseased. You cannot afford to run that risk. You have to start investing in feeding the bats a little, so they can continue exchanging genetic material from one plant to another.
“And they said, ‘Thank you very much. We will think seriously about this. We’ll let you know.’
“But they never did. And then about five or six years later the disease I had hypothesized actually showed up and they said, ‘What? What was that story about the bats and the flowers and genetics? What was that again?’”
To the Bat Man’s delight, some members of the tequila industry began to listen to him and offered to invest heavily in his plan. “Now all I needed was a leg-in to the market,” Medellín told me.
That’s when he met restaurateur and tequila promoter David Suro, who told Medellín, “I’ve been looking for something like this all my life and I finally found you; so we need to work together.”
As a result, the Tequila Interchange Project launched 300,000 bottles of bat-friendly tequila in November 2016, each of them displaying the little hologram issued by UNAM.
“And,” adds Medellín, “we now have bars in San Antonio, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and many other places, even Arkansas, whose menus list bat-friendly tequilas and mezcales. If you order from this page, one dollar from each drink is going to the project.”
Even if you live far from an Arkansas bar, you can help the Tequila Interchange Project. Rodrigo Medellín suggests you:
1. Read up on bats, pollen and bat-friendly tequila and mezcal.
2. Talk to your liquor store owner and your bartender: tell them about this fantastic story.
3. Consider donating through the TIP website.
“Everything donated,” says Rodrigo Medellín, “goes straight to the field.” Just click on the orange donate button.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years, and is the author of “A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area” and co-author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico.” More of his writing can be found on his website.