“I can’t tell you how to find them, but you can smell them,” said Yonatan Mishal, an art school instructor and tour guide, of the bats living in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
His directions are vague, because urban explorers are not supposed to be wandering around certain uninhabited corners of the Central Bus Station’s underbelly. However, deep under the bus station’s cheap clothing stores and burekas stands, there lies a colony of a few hundred bats, which have made the station their home and complicated plans to remodel or demolish the building.
The strange story begins with Ram Karmi, one of Israel’s most famous architects.
In 1967 at the age of 33, Karmi was asked by businessman Arieh Filtz to design the bus station of the future. The station was supposed to revitalize south Tel Aviv, and what Karmi proposed was a mega structure, which was the world’s largest bus station at 230,000 square meters, when it opened in 1993.
Karmi, who came from the Brutalist school of architecture, envisioned a structure so vast that passengers would be forced to walk by the many shops and spend money as they traversed from one end of the station to another.
The project was an expensive dream, and to finance it the company sold around 1,500 individual shops. The building took nearly 30 years to complete, and the number of entities with a stake in the station ballooned to 3,000, according to Mishal.
Yet the Central Bus Station never lived up to Karmi’s dream. Although still a major transport hub, with eight stories and around 60,000 passengers per day, the station has become a symbol of neglect, decay and dysfunction in south Tel Aviv.
Large tracts of the building are uninhabited and dirty.
Instead of stopping to shop, as Karmi envisioned, most Israelis rapidly shuffle through the station resembling a herd of trapped animals hoping to escape.
(Deserted hallway in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Credit: Eliyahu Kamisher)
As Israelis have left the building, Israel’s immigrant communities, including Filipino, Sudanese and Eritreans, have made the station and the adjacent Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood their cultural and commercial center. Filipino food products, such as fermented fish sauce, can be bought on the fourth floor, not far from the African Refugee Development Center, which advocates on behalf of African asylum-seekers.
Yet the one inhabitant that Karmi definitely did not foresee was the Egyptian fruit bat, one of around 33 bat species present in Israel. The bats are frugivores, and Tel Aviv’s abundance of fruit trees is what has led them to the city.
“Two hundred years ago the bats had to fly far, from tree to tree, to get food, but in the city the food is dense and close, so bats stay and roost here to save time and energy. That’s why the cities are so full of bats,” stated Yossi Yovel, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University and head of the Bat Lab for Neuro- Ecology.
According to Yovel, “Basements, parking lots, and deserted buildings become roosting spots because it is the closest thing to a bat’s natural habitat – the cave.”
In the Central Bus Station the bats have found an abandoned bus tunnel, which was sealed off during construction in the 1980s, creating a bat cave of sorts. There appear to be a few hundred bats nesting in the “cave.”
On approaching the “bat cave,” there is complete silence, except for the faint rumble of buses nearby and the growing smell of bat guano, until one enters and hears the screeches and yelps that echo off the cement walls. There is only a dim and flickering florescent light in the distance, which allows the faint outline of the bats’ wings to be made out as they swiftly fly from pillar to pillar.
The bats are completely harmless, but there is the nuisance of guano droppings which fall from the ceiling.
The presence of the bats in the central bus station also complicates any proposals to demolish or remodel the station.
According to Mishal, along with the problem of multiple ownerships, the bats create a new challenge. “Now anyone who wants to demolish the building will have to reach an agreement not only with 800 of the 1,500 shop owners, but also with the environmental authorities.”
This may not be an easy task.
In June a building contractor in Hadera sparked a mass protest led by the animal rights group Let the Animals Live after demolishing an old building that contained thousands of bats. The group successfully halted further demolition of the building until a decision could be reached on how to ensure the bats’ safety.
According to Dr. Assaf Tsoar, the southern district ecologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Egyptian fruit bat is not a protected species in Israel. However, Israel is a signatory to the 1994 EUROBATS agreement, under which the Egyptian fruit bat is protected.
Moreover, INPA is in negotiations with the Agriculture Ministry to add the bat to the protected species list.
“The Agriculture Ministry considers them a pest because they eat fruit, which could harm farmers. But they only eat ripe fruit, which is usually already picked, so damage is minimal,” stated Tsoar.
Yet not all Israelis view bats as an obstacle to their demolition projects, and there is even a movement to change the public’s conception of bats from a scary nuisance to an important part of Tel Aviv’s ecosystem.
Another Karmi creation, Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center, is also home to a colony of a few dozen bats. However, Dizengoff Center’s director of sustainability, Sheana Shecterman, told The Jerusalem Post
that the center has taken steps to preserve and protect the colony. “Ten years ago the bats were treated as mice, and exterminators were brought in to get rid of them. Now we are protecting them,” she said.
“Using light, we navigated the bats away from areas that disturb the regular flow of the center and ensured a dark ‘cave’ with a small opening for the bats,” she said.
Shecterman plans to put a live video stream of the “bat cave” in Dizengoff Center along with educational information in hopes “to show the public that bats are not scary. After all, this is their home, too,” she said.
INPA has also taken an aggressive stance on bat protection and preservation. Over the past two years it sought to file criminal charges against three men who harassed a protected bat cave while hiking in the Upper Galilee. The court concluded on July 14 to not charge the men and instead fined them NIS 1,000 each.
For now, no steps have been taken to preserve or destroy the bus station’s “bat cave.” Like much of the station, the bats are left to themselves; but instead of contributing to decay, they are a part of the station’s new life, deep down in the dark recesses of Ram Karmi’s failed dream.