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Bracken Bat Cave: World Class Conservation Tourism

Milo watching bats emerging from Bracken Cave, TexasWitness the largest concentration of mammals on earth!The tornado emergence of TWENTY MILLION bats is a jaw-dropping, life-changing experience — one that I think every animal lover should add to their bucket-list. Observing the largest congregation of mammals on Earth can act as a catalyst to teach people about the ecological and economic value of bats and their need for conservation globally.

Mexican free-tail bats emerging from Bracken Cave, Texas

Sadly, the tourism sector is saturated with outfitters and companies that falsely sell themselves as sustainable and environmentally conscious, while not prioritizing ethical practices and sometimes blatantly exploiting wildlife. Few encounters around the world are owned and run by the nonprofits dedicated to saving the species they encourage tourism with. This is the unique case with visiting Bracken Cave to watch the hours-long departure of millions of bats, all while supporting Bat Conservation International. 

Located less than 20 miles from San Antonio, Texas, Bracken Cave is home to the legendary roosting site of approximately 20 MILLION Mexican free-tailed bats. For decades Bat Conservation International has spearheaded the preservation of Bracken Cave to protect the largest colony of bats in the world. The nearly 1,500 acre preserve ensures human encroachment and artificial lighting remain far away from the bats’ roosting site. Bat Conservation International has created one of the most ethical and sustainable wildlife viewing opportunities in the world. The success story from Bracken Cave is now used as a model for other conservation groups striving towards sustainable wildlife tourism.

Milo watching bats emerging from Bracken Cave, TexasI was fortunate enough to see this conservation masterpiece myself in August of 2018. The sensation that still leaves me speechless was the powerful gusts of wind from the “batnado” that was produced as the bats circled the cave entrance flying higher and higher. Mexican free-tailed bats only weigh about as much as two quarters and have a wingspan that measures a mere 10 inches. But when 20 million of those tiny bats begin flying together the funnel of air their flapping wings create is unreal. Between mid-May to mid-September this colony emerges right before dusk nightly. The reason for the mass exudes is to hunt the night skies for insects. In fact, the entire colony of 20 million bats can eat up to 147 tons of insects each night. How amazing is this, considering each bat weighs the equivalent of 50 cents. This amount of hunting saves the region’s cotton growers around $740,000 every year in pesticide and crop damage costs.

I was in awe over this spectacle for the nearly three hours that we spent at the cave opening. I walked back and forth between watching the “batnado” flow from the cave to viewing them overhead as they dispersed into the skies. 

July and August, make for the best months to view the bats. This time follows the yearly baby boom and is right around when the young bats are learning to fly with the rest of the colony. In addition, during these months the days are longer which makes for an extended opportunity to view the bats. 

The trick to Bracken’s success lies in their restrictive management practices. To best protect this sensitive area, they have limited access to small, scheduled groups. Only members of Bat Conservation International are granted access to designated viewing nights. Members can visit once per year and are allowed either three guests or five guests depending on their contribution level. Individuals interested in visiting may do so by registering for a Member Bat Flight, available on select dates from mid-May to mid-September. You can become a member of Bat Conservation International to share your support!

I may have already checked off this wonder of Mother Nature from my wildlife bucket list, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to return to Bracken Cave again. This spectacular display of behavior is worth seeing over and over! The emergence of 20 million bats, is just something you can’t simply see once.  The image of the shifting spiral of millions of flapping wings flying into the darkening sky will always be an unforgettable sight to me!