Thirty years ago, just about everyone "knew" that bats were loathsome, dangerous, disease-ridden pests of no particular value. Bats were seldom studied, almost never considered in land-use planning and were frequent victims of senseless vandalism. Oh, and a lot of folks were convinced they often became entangled in human hair. Not surprisingly, bats were in decline almost everywhere.
Such were the daunting challenges facing Bat Conservation International on March 12, 1982, when it was founded by Merlin Tuttle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the first non-government organization in the world devoted exclusively to bats. Merlin recalls some skepticism at his prospects for success. "Even conservationists looked at me like: "Sure, next you'll try to sell us on the virtues of rattlesnakes and cockroaches.'"
How things have changed in three decades. Due in large part to Bat Conservation International, fears and misinformation, while hardly banished, are far less prevalent in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Bats are studied by top scientists and defended by dedicated conservationists. They figure frequently into environmental assessments for land use. Major bat colonies are protected in caves across America by bat-friendly gates and other measures.
Organizations, government agencies, working groups, professional associations and alliances dedicated to bat research and conservation are at work in almost every U.S. state. Internationally, such organizations as the Bat Conservation Trust of the United Kingdom, EUROBATS, the Latin American Network for the Conservation of Bats, the Chiroptera Conservation and Information Network for South Asia, the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation and Research Unit cover much of the world.
And, of course, 2011-2012 is, by proclamation of the United Nations, the International Year of the Bat. Hundreds of exciting, educational events are taking place all over the world to celebrate bats and their value to ecosystems and human economies.
The esteemed bat biologist Paul Racey of the United Kingdom recently noted in BATS (Spring 2011): "Through vigorous education and outreach, professional-training workshops, on-the-ground conservation efforts and systematic scientific research, as well as a program of scholarships and grassroots conservation grants, BCI has had a major impact on both the protection of bats and the public's perception of them in the United States and much of the world. BCI also played a key role in helping to create and/or nurture a number of current bat-conservation groups in many countries."
And how much things remain the same. The challenges are often different from BCI's early days, but they are no less daunting.
"We are very proud of all that we have accomplished over these past three decades," said BCI Executive Director Nina Fascione, who succeeded Merlin Tuttle following his resignation in 2010 after 28 years at the organization's helm. "But many of the threats that have long plagued bats still remain, especially human ignorance and disappearing habitat. Bats also face heart-wrenching new threats in North America. And in much of the world, the idea of conserving bats is still almost unheard of."
The devastating disease called White-nose Syndrome has swept across eastern North America, killing millions of bats in the past six years. Entire species are at imminent risk and regional extinctions are predicted for the once-common little brown myotis. With mortality rates approaching 100 percent at some sites, WNS is the gravest threat ever faced by North American bats. Solutions remain elusive.
On top of that, tens of thousands of bats are being killed each year by the spinning turbines of wind-energy sites. With wind facilities increasing rapidly around the United States and many parts of the world, this source of green energy could have dire consequences for bats unless mitigation strategies developed by BCI and its partners are implemented.
In many places, old threats have grown worse. Bats are being hammered by age-old myths and frequent vandalism. Deforestation destroys habitat at an alarming rate, subsistence and commercial hunting take frightful tolls on fruit bats, while improper tourism and guano mining threaten many cave bat populations.
The key point of Paul Racey's BATS article was this: "Our work has only begun: Roughly half the landmass of the world remains mostly a bat-conservation void. ... So in addition to marking our accomplishments, we must also acknowledge the challenge that lies before us and plan the task of filling this void."
"As we begin our fourth decade," Fascione said, "BCI and all who care about bats must renew and expand our commitment to work together to conserve bats and their habitats around the world."
ROBERT LOCKE is Director of Publications for Bat Conservation International.