The seeds of a powerful new concept for international bat conservation were planted in 1994, when BCI and the Instituto de Ecología of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) created the Program for the Conservation of Migratory Bats (PCMM).
The initial goal was to protect millions of cave-dwelling Mexican free-tailed bats that spend their winters in Mexico and summers in the United States. These bats, with enormous appetites for destructive insects, provide major economic benefits to farmers in both countries. And they faced lethal threats on both sides of the border. Border-crossing pollinators – the nectar-feeding lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) and Mexican long-nosed bats (L. nivalis) – were soon added to the program.
BCI had been addressing specific international issues (in Thailand, India, Australia and elsewhere) since its founding in 1982, but PCMM was the first effort to establish a continuing bat-conservation movement outside the United States and built on a foundation of local leadership. PCMM demonstrated the value of supporting local leaders with the proven ability to conduct effective conservation based on their own perspectives.
With support from BCI and the leadership of UNAM biologist Rodrigo Medellín (a member of BCI's current Science Advisory Committee), the international team combined research, education and conservation efforts to achieve significant progress.
After years of work, one of Mexico's largest bat caves, Cueva de la Boca, was designated as a protected natural area. Through collaborative efforts, the cave's battered bat population rebounded from 100,000 to well over 2 million by 2005. Educator Laura Navarro, meanwhile, produced a series of bilingual children's books about bats. Speakers and educational materials were provided to schools and community groups, and bat-focused radio programs were broadcast around the country.
Over the years, PCMM evolved – with occasional twists and turns – into a robust, independent organization whose mission grew to include all of the roughly 140 bat species in Mexico. It won widespread support from government agencies, universities and conservation organizations and led to the founding of similar programs in Bolivia and Venezuela. PCMM and its leaders have been recognized with the Whitley Award, the Rolex Award, Mexico´s National Conservation Award and the recent BBVA Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America, which incudes a 250,000 Euro ($318,000) prize.
Medellín and PCMM and others created RELCOM, the Latin American Bat Research Network that was launched in 2007. It includes bat-oriented organizations in 14 countries from Mexico to Argentina, a vast region with more than 380 bat species. Most of these groups are modeled after PCMM.
RELCOM identified the top threats found throughout the region as habitat loss, roost destruction, human-bat conflicts, emerging infectious diseases and indiscriminate use of pesticides and other toxins, and agreed to specific objectives and goals in meeting them. RELCOM demonstrates the power of cooperative, continent-wide bat conservation with shared priorities and goals grounded in the priorities of local leaders.
Capacity-building – encouraging local conservationists to develop their own self-sustaining programs through training, nurturing and initial support – often provides not only quick achievements, but also carries bat conservation into the future.
In 2009, BCI's Bats of Latin America and the Caribbean Program began, with a commitment to expand bat conservation throughout this vast region by forging partnerships and encouraging sustainable bat-conservation communities.
A key component of the program, which also includes research and public education, is a series of workshops produced with support from the U.S. Forest Service International Programs and many local partners. This is a region of remarkable diversity, with nearly 30 percent of the world's bat species. Yet these bats face grave threats ranging from deforestation to vandalism, and many areas have no local experts on bat research and conservation. Students with an interest in bats often have nowhere to turn for training, advice and support.
Spanish-language workshops in Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Colombia have taught the latest research and conservation techniques to scores of biologists and conservationists from around the region. Participants also build formal and informal networks for sharing information and advice. And many newly empowered participants return home to launch their own bat-conservation projects and organizations.
The Latin American effort was boosted in 2011, when its Wings Across America project won a $100,000 grant from Disney Friends for Change, thanks to the many BCI members and friends who supported it through an online voting competition.
BCI's experience in cultivating homegrown conservation paid off in February 2006, when an email appeared from Norma Monfort, whose family had for generations protected a colony of Geoffroy's rousette fruit bats (Rousettus amplexicaudatus) in a cave on Samal Island in the Philippines. Monfort said she faced losing the cave under new government regulations and feared the bats might be devastated by unregulated hunting.
"My concern is simple," she wrote. "Where do I go from here? Who can I tap to do research or tell me where to start?"
She had come to the right place. BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle and Dave Waldien, now Vice President for Operations and International Programs, spent 10 hectic days on the island. They surveyed Monfort Cave and estimated it was overflowing with about 1.8 million bats – the largest known colony of Geoffroy's rousette fruit bats. They also visited other major caves in the area and found barely 2,000 bats total, despite evidence that hundreds of thousands once roosted in the caves. They also found evidence of hunting: clubs, snares, torches and nets.
Monfort's cave, guarded around the clock, clearly was a refuge of last resort for these fruit bats, which are vital pollinators and seed dispersers for many trees, including such economically important fruit-producers as durian.
Thus began a remarkably productive and still-expanding BCI partnership with Norma Monfort and many of the Philippines' leading bat scientists, conservationists and organizations. The bat cave remains with the Monfort family and is now a popular education site for ecotourists. And dedicated conservationists are working in concert around the country.
The program recently featured the first Philippines Cave Bat Workshop. Led by biologist Nina Ingle and including the country's leading bat scientists and conservationists, the session focused on developing a national database of bat caves and specific threats facing these populations.
Much of BCI's worldwide reach grows from the Global Grassroots Conservation Fund, which provides modest grants for bat-conservation efforts beyond North America. Eighty-eight grants have supported projects in 46 countries, from Australia and Bangladesh to Venezuela and Vietnam, since Global Grassroots began in 2000.
These grants, which magnify BCI's investment by tapping the enthusiasm of local volunteers and conservationists, often sow some of the first seeds of bat conservation in developing countries. Active bat-conservation communities are at work today in Kenya, Ukraine, India, Nepal, Colombia and elsewhere, at least in part because of Global Grassroots.
In India, for example, grants made to American expatriate Sally Walker and her colleagues at CCINSA – the Chiroptera Conservation and Information Network of South Asia – grew into Walker's three-year stint (2007-09) as BCI's South Asia Liaison with support from the Grassroots program.
The CCINSA team conducted bat-research workshops and a range of educational programs and community-based conservation initiatives in India, as well as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The group's education efforts feature colorful teaching materials, including posters, miniposters, booklets, coloring books, even children's drama kits. BCI's investment helped build a vigorous constituency for bat conservation through much of the subcontinent.
The Southeast Asian Bat Conservation and Research Unit (SEABCRU) is a recent and promising example of this strategy. Launched by Texas Tech University biologist Tigga Kingston as a network for scientists and conservationists in 2007, SEABCRU moved into a new phase in 2011 with five-year funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
BCI's Waldien serves on the Steering Committee with other bat-conservation leaders from around Southeast Asia and the world, and more than 130 conservationists, researchers, educators and students have joined the organization. After identifying top priorities for long-term conservation in the region, people and resources are being mobilized. Each priority calls specifically for training and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students to ensure sustainable research and conservation efforts for the future.
We are growing bat conservation around the world by recruiting, training and supporting dedicated local leaders, and amplifying their impacts through multinational partnerships and alliances. Worldwide bat-conservation challenges are daunting, but they can be met through the cooperation and leadership of local people with the commitment, training and support to do the job.