As we celebrate the International Year of the Bat (2011-12), we are right to celebrate many accomplishments in bat conservation during the past 30 years or so. Vigorous organizations, government agencies and universities, and countless dedicated individuals, are now advancing bat research and conservation in many countries around the world.
But Paul Racey of the United Kingdom, a powerful champion of international bat conservation for many years, stresses a more important point: "Our work has only begun." Roughly half the landmass of the world remains mostly a bat-conservation void, he says. That includes almost all of Africa, the Middle East, the former Russian republics of Asia, most of the Russian Federation and most of Asia.
"So in addition to marking our accomplishments," Racey says, "we must also acknowledge the challenge that lies before us and plan the task of filling this void."
Bats in these areas rarely enjoy effective protection, and they face a litany of perils: deforestation and habitat loss, cave disturbance, hunting for bushmeat, urbanization, outright vandalism and more. Building a constituency for bats is hampered by a lack of understanding of their benefits, as well as dangerous myths grounded in traditional folklore and often embellished by modern media.
Racey, chair of the IUCN's Bat Specialist Group and a member of BCI's Science Advisory Committee, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen and a Visiting Professor at the University of Exeter in Cornwall. He described the challenges facing bat conservation in a presentation at last year's 15th International Bat Research Conference at Prague, Czech Republic, and in the Spring 2011 issue of BATS magazine.
BCI and other international conservation groups support varied bat-conservation efforts within this void. These projects often seem dwarfed within so vast a landscape, but they can plant seeds of conservation that, with support, nurturing and patience, can grow into sustainable programs.
Real conservation for the future cannot be imposed from outside, Racey argues. It must grow from within each country and region.
Training and nurturing young scientists and conservationists is one of the most powerful approaches to building new bat-centered organizations, especially in the developing world where initial funding is often a daunting problem.
BCI's Student Research Scholarships have been especially important in helping young scientists and supporting research in regions where interest in bats is rare. In addition, BCI's Global Grassroots Conservation Program provides small grants for innovative bat-conservation work. These modest awards often blossom into continuing efforts, as in Nepal, Kenya, Colombia, Romania and elsewhere.
Racey also cites local workshops, such as those produced by Bat Conservation International and others around the world, as powerful tools for capacity building. Bat-monitoring programs that recruit and train volunteers provide another effective strategy that combines scientific research with community involvement. The National Bat Monitoring Programme has demonstrated this in the UK, as the Southeastern Bat Diversity Network's annual Bat Blitz has in the United States.
There is much to do to fill this global void, Racey says. "But the history of bat conservation shows clearly that we are up to the task – if we have the will."
BCI Members can read all of Paul Racey's important assessment of bat conservation's past and future in the Spring 2011 issue of BATS magazine. You can help BCI as it works to "fill the void" in bat conservation around the world: www.batcon.org/donate