We’ve all heard about the bat conservation efforts of some producers in the tequila industry, but now Dr Rodrigo Medellín, nicknamed ‘the Bat Man of Mexico’, is taking the fight to the on-trade.
Medellín is hoping to recruit bars to the Bat Friendly Program, an intiative he started with the Tequila Interchange Project, to encourage more tequila producers to introduce conservation efforts that not only help Mexico’s bat populations, but increase the genetic diversity of the Blue Weber agave too.
For those that don’t know, agave and bats are inextricably linked, because bats pollinate agave plants. This is where things get complicated, however, because the part of the plant that they feed off, the quiote, is usually chopped off the agave – otherwise, it shoots up once the plant reaches maturity and uses all the natural sugars, killing it in the process and rendering it useless for tequila production.
‘What you’re looking at with the quiote is a huge penis,’ explains Medellín at a recent talk in London. ‘The bat is looking for food, while the plant is looking for sex. When the quiote is cut off, you’re denying the agave the possibility of having sex that one time. Agave plants can reproduce in different ways. They can clone themselves, which reduces genetic diversity, or they can undergo sexual reproduction, when they come into contact with the genes of different plants through pollinators. Over the years they’ve lost a lot of genetic diversity.’
In fact, Medellín points to one study, published in 2003, which stated that 270 million agave plants are clones of only two plants. ‘The genetic diversity is zero,’ he says. Medellín first went to the Consejo Regulador del Tequila in 1993 to warn them about the lack of genetic diversity in the agave, and the fact that the lack of quiotes was affecting the bat population. He was politely ignored. The same happened in 2003, following the genetic diversity report. ‘I went to see them to say they’re playing with fire – it would only take one disease to affect the agave. It’s time to realise that losing our bats will have an impact on our tequila.’
Since then, a few producers have joined forces with Medellín and the Bat Friendly Program to help improve the agave genetic diversity, and to support bat populations. The label is awarded ‘to any producers that save five per cent of the agaves for the bats, and that open their books and show us exactly how they’re making tequila. That has nothing to do with the bats, but we want to know exactly what they’re doing with the agaves,’ Medellín explains.
One of the producers to sign up to the project is Carlos Camarena of La Alteña distillery, who makes a number of brands, including Ocho and Tapatio – both of which are signed up to the programme. Ocho produces between 700,000 and 800,000 bottles a year. Of that, roughly 100,000 are tied to the Bat Friendly Program, and sport a silver sticker declaring as much.In leaving five per cent of the agave for the bats, participating fields are dotted with beautiful flowering trees as the quiote shoot up – something that hadn’t been seen in over 150 years.
‘Brands are trying it out, seeing what happens, but investing more every year. I don’t think that in two years’ time we’ll have any of the big five producers signed up though,’ Medellín laughs.
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At the time of the talk, all of the Bat Friendly tequila that was available across Europe and the US had sold out, suggesting good demand for the product, but he wants the pressure to be maintained on the tequila companies by their customers. ‘The more pressure that you, the consumers, puts on the industry for Bat Friendly tequila, the more you’re going to drive the programme,’ he declared.
So far, Medellín’s efforts have been richly rewarded. The Bat Man of Mexico has been at the forefront of the fight to protect bats for 25 years, and he has found that bat colonies are either stable or growing. The Lesser Long Nose Bat, one of the species he was focusing on, was removed from the endangered list in 2013, making it the first-ever mammal on the American continent to be delisted.
While this is something to be celebrated, it can cause funding problems for continued conservation efforts, however. ‘When you delist a species [from the endangered list]then the money is going to go away,’ states Medellín. And that’s where the support of other organisations comes in. So speak to your suppliers, and ask them what they’re doing to help improve the genetic diversity of agave, and save the bats.