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Banished Bats Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Karen J. Coates

Cambodia's National Museum has expelled a precious collection. For decades, millions of bats blackened Phnom Penh's sky at dusk, as the animals left their roost in the museum roof, scouring the city for insects. The museum has now evicted them.

The animals were nearly as famous as the Angkor-era statues inside the museum, but director Khun Samen has sealed the roof so they can no longer roost there, generating the tons of guano that have damaged Cambodia's archaeological treasures. "I like the bats, but I do not like them in the museum," the director says.

Workers spent hours scrubbing the guano from statues and floors. "I used to be sick from the bats. There were a lot of insects," employee Noeun Nal says. But every day, he sold around ten pounds of guano as fertilizer, earning about $1--more than many Cambodians' daily earnings.

Wildlife conservationists had proposed a new ceiling to separate bats from treasures, but "nobody could find the money," Khun Samen says. The eviction saddens Joe Walston, the Wildlife Conservation Society representative who spearheaded the ceiling idea. "We all agreed the museum's main role was to protect the artifacts," he says, but a new ceiling also would have improved the building's weak, leaky exterior. He was searching for donors when the roof was sealed.

Archaeologist Chuch Phoeurn, deputy secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says foreigners have criticized the removal--but no one offered to foot the bill, either. "Speaking is very easy, but doing is very hard work," he says. The museum, which his Ministry controls, operates on a shoestring, he says, and only ten percent of visitor fees goes toward the museum budget. The rest? "I don't know. I can't say," Chuch Phoeurn says.

Walston expects the bats will survive locally, but they won't breed, and the city will lose its organic pest controllers. "[Khun Samen] has succeeded; he got rid of the bats," Walston says, but, "he's lost his chance to rebuild his ceiling. It's a shame for the museum, for the artifacts. It's a shame for the building, actually."

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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