Bat Conservation International has achieved far more than I ever imagined possible when I created it as a nights-and-weekends project 30 years ago. It was born out of desperation. Though bats were declining precipitously, traditional conservation organizations mostly shunned them as too hopelessly unpopular to be helped. In fact, Americans were spending millions of dollars a year to eradicate bats.
I had been studying the gray myotis (Myotis grisescens) since 1959, when, as a high school student in Tennessee, I began to trace its annual migrations. Twenty years later, the species became the basis for my Ph.D. dissertation.
Over time, it became obvious that the gray myotis was tumbling rapidly toward extinction, and the primary threats were human disturbance and vandalism. In 1973, I discovered that the largest colony in my research area – some 250,000 bats in an Alabama cave – had completely disappeared. The entrance was scorched by fires, and fireworks debris littered the cave floor. Such lethal vandalism was far from an isolated incident. The gray myotis was listed as Endangered in 1976.
The few biologists who studied bats were urging government agencies and conservation groups to help, but even the Endangered Species listing had little impact. Why be concerned about vermin? Working alone, our impact was limited, and bat-conservation funding was almost nonexistent.
By 1975, I had become Curator of Mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I gave frequent lectures about bats and worked with news media often. I learned photography in defense of bats and quickly confirmed that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. As people began responding to photos of cute bats catching insect pests and pollinating flowers, I began to see a glimmer of hope – if only I could recruit allies. Hence, the founding of Bat Conservation International.
BCI was officially launched on March 12, 1982. Its headquarters were in my office at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Verne Read was founding Trustee. He and his wife Marion have been among BCI's earliest and most important supporters through the years. Verne remains Chairman Emeritus of BCI's board.
The first few years were hectic and precarious – but also wonderfully productive. In one exhausting month, I had 21 speaking engagements, 16 of them outside Wisconsin.
Our first major victory came in 1982, during a visit to Thailand. Local monks, at my request, hired a game warden to protect wrinkled-lipped bats (Tadarida plicata) at Khao Chong Pran cave where poachers were decimating a once-huge colony. The protected colony grew dramatically, and by 2002, the monks were earning $135,000 a year from sales of guano for fertilizer. The bats are now a major tourist attraction.
That first year also saw BCI's first publication: "Bats and Public Health." This peer-reviewed scientific paper refuted myths about bats and rabies and provided the latest information for medical professionals. It was distributed to every state health department in the United States.
In 1983, we partnered with the State of Florida and The Nature Conservancy to gain permanent protection for Judges Cave, home to one of Florida's most important nursery colonies of gray myotis. This was the first of many fruitful partnerships BCI would forge with government, industry and conservationists around the world. It was also the first of hundreds of bat caves and thousands of bat sanctuaries in abandoned mines that would be protected through our efforts.
Due to widespread hatred of bats, we had to learn extraordinary diplomacy, avoid needless confrontation and convert enemies into allies. That approach has served BCI well.
We also published the first issue of BATS, our magazine for members, in November 1983. It was then a four-page newsletter. And we had fewer than 200 members to send it to.
With essential support from Verne and Marion Read, BCI moved to Austin, Texas, in 1986, a city that was then generating more negative publicity about bats than any other place in America. The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin had become a near-perfect bat roost when crevices were created in the underside of the bridge during renovations a few years earlier.
Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) were moving in by the hundreds of thousands. Fearful citizens wanted the bats eradicated. Then we came to town and began educating Austinites about the value of their bats. Austin learned to love its bridge bats – and so did thousands of tourists who visit every summer to see them.
BCI, with members in more than 60 countries, is still based in Austin.
So that was BCI's beginning. I am very proud of what we've accomplished: a national park to protect flying foxes and their rainforest in American Samoa; countless bat colonies protected around the world; workshops that have prepared more than 1,000 biologists, conservationists and educators for bat research and conservation; scholarships that have supported critical conservation research and nurtured hundreds of young scientists in 60 countries; Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grants that helped fund conservation worldwide; and much, much more.
But most importantly, Bat Conservation International has made enormous progress in transforming once-poisonous public perceptions of bats into a growing appreciation for the ecological and economic importance of these incredible creatures. Huge problems remain, but BCI has proven repeatedly that it is up to the challenges ahead, thanks to our dedicated and generous members, colleagues and other partners – people who are literally changing the world.