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Environment

2011 marks the year of the bat

Few mammals send as much of a shiver down the spine as bats. But experts insist they are misunderstood and actually play a vital role in our ecosystem. Reason enough for the UN to declare 2011 the Year of the Bat.

Few mammals send as much of a shiver down the spine as bats, but experts insist they are misunderstood and actually play a vital role in our ecosystem. Reason enough for the UN to declare 2011 the Year of the Bat.

The nocturnal nature of bats might mean we don't come face to face with them on a daily basis, but it doesn't mean they aren't out there. There are almost 1,200 different types of bat, which together account for almost a quarter of the mammals on the planet.

Yet for all that, their numbers have been dwindling over recent years, far enough for some species to now be considered threatened.

To highlight the importance of these mysterious winged creatures, the Bonn-based Eurobats and Convention of the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) is organizing a host of UN activities.

Image issues

A bat flying towards a full moon in a dark sky

The stuff of vampire legend

One of the problems the dedicated year hopes to address is that of image.

For many people bats are synonymous with horror films, vampire legends and a sense of lurking danger, but Andreas Streit of Eurobats told Deutsche Welle that the blood-thirsty fables are just that, and mean people are missing out.

“We want to reveal the fascinating lifestyle of bats, their very special characteristics and abilities, which a lot of people just don't know anything about. Arousing interest in bats will be the main focus of the campaign.”

Another message he wants to get across is the role they play in the eco-system. Almost all species of European bats feed on insects, which as Streit explains, gives them an important function.

“There are loads of nocturnal insects, not only the ones who just annoy us, like mosquitoes, but also pests who attack crops and trees,” he said, adding that bats are the only natural way of controlling their numbers. One single bat can devour between five and six thousand mosquitoes in a night.

Europe : setting an example

A small brown bat with big eyes holding an even smaller one in a tree

Mother and child fruit bat

The Eurobats director is no stranger to successful campaigns for bat conservation. 2011 also marks the 20th birthday of the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats.

It appears to have been very effective in spreading the message that the nocturnal mammals, who navigate by echolocation and sleep upside down, are worth protecting. The past two decades have seen the numbers of most European bat species either increase or stabilize.

Streit and his team are now helping to spread the message to other parts of the world, where bat populations are not in such good shape, and where they are important for different reasons.

In the tropics, for example, there are a lot of fruit and nectar eating bat species which serve an essential function in pollinating plants and spreading seeds.

Some plants, such as durian trees, rely entirely on bats for pollination, and others including avocados, figs and mangos are at least partially dependent on their nocturnal visitors. This means they play an important economic as well as ecological role.

A cluster of bats hanging upside down

Bats practise safety in numbers

Bats under threat

Yet in spite of their usefulness, a lot of bat species are under threat from human activity. The main problems are the loss of habitat through the spread of human settlements and destruction of forests and the use of pesticides.

The latter not only deprives them of their food source by destroying insects, but gets into their systems causing infertility and death.

In some African and Asian countries, bats are considered a delicacy and are actively hunted for food. “Unfortunately, most of this bat hunting takes place in an unsustainable fashion,” Streit said.

"The numbers are reduced to the extent where the whole population is at risk. Sadly, we are getting an increasing number of alarming reports from many regions."

He also receives reports of bats being killed by people who associate them with the spread of diseases such as rabies.

Streit says such fear is unfounded, as people very rarely come into direct contact with a bat, and even if they do, infected animals never attack other animals or humans.

The Year of the Bat will extend over the next two calendar years and organizers will work with different partners, including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to improve understanding of bats.

The Bonn team has launched a joint project with the US Forest Service to develop an online program to teach teachers, students and land management professionals about bats and bat conservation. It will be launched in several languages in autumn 2011.

Author: Irene Quaile
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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