Year of the bat

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT -

THEY save the farm­ing in­dus­try mil­lions of dol­lars each year, help sus­tain the world’s forests and, in some coun­tries, are a ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion. Bats – de­scribed as “one of the planet’s most mis­un­der­stood and per­se­cuted mam­mals” – are now fly­ing out of the night and into the spot­light for a two-year-long cel­e­bra­tion.

Launched last month, the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme-backed Year of the Bat will pro­mote con­ser­va­tion, re­search and ed­u­ca­tion on the world’s only fly­ing mam­mals. There will be a spe­cial fo­cus on the eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits that bats pro­vide, such as pest con­trol and seed dis­per­sal.

The joint cam­paign, led by the United Na­tions’s Con­ven­tion on the Con­ser­va­tion of Mi­gra­tory Species of Wild An­i­mals (CMS) and the Agree­ment on the Con­ser­va­tion of Pop­u­la­tions of Euro­pean Bats (Euro­bats), will draw at­ten­tion to the world’s 1,100 bat species – around half of which are cur­rently at risk.

“Com­pared to an­i­mals like tigers and ele­phants, bats re­ceive lit­tle pos­i­tive at­ten­tion,” said An­dreas Streit, ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary of Euro­bats. “But they are fas­ci­nat­ing mam­mals and play an in­dis­pens­able role in main­tain­ing our en­vi­ron­ment.”

From in­sect-eat­ing bats in Europe that pro­vide im­por­tant pest con­trol to seed­dis­pers­ing bats in the trop­ics that help sus­tain rain­forests, bats de­liver vi­tal ecosys­tem ser­vices across a wide range of en­vi­ron­ments. Bat pop­u­la­tions in large ur­ban ar­eas can con­sume up to 13,636kg of in­sects in a sin­gle night.

One of most spec­tac­u­lar and un­usual tourist at­trac­tions in Austin, Texas, is the Congress Bridge bat flight from mid-March un­til Novem­ber, where over a mil­lion Mex­i­can free-tailed bats stream into the sky at dusk on their nightly for­age for food. A pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion, the spec­tac­u­lar bat flight gen­er­ates mil­lions of dol­lars for the city each year.

“When mi­grat­ing, bats can travel up to 4,000km in one year,” said El­iz­a­beth Mrema, ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary of CMS. “Africa’s great­est mam­mal mi­gra­tion in­volves eight mil­lion fruit bats that fly into Zam­bia from across the con­ti­nent each year. This flight is an in­cred­i­ble spec­ta­cle that sci­en­tists are still un­rav­el­ling.”

Be­sides the Arc­tic, Antarc­tic and a few iso­lated oceanic re­gions, bats are found ev­ery­where on Earth. Hav­ing in­hab­ited the planet for the last 50 mil­lion years, bats to­day make up nearly a quar­ter of the global mam­mal pop­u­la­tion.

More than 1,100 bat species now doc­u­mented but bat species are still be­ing dis­cov­ered in places as var­ied as Mada­gas­car, Bri­tain, the Philip­pines, the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo and the Co­moros is­lands.

The Year of the Bat in 2011 will co­in­cide with the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tional Year of Forests. Bat species dis­perse seeds and aid pol­li­na­tion in tem­per­ate and trop­i­cal forests, help­ing to re­gen­er­ate and sus­tain al­most a third of the Earth’s land area. Sus­tain­able forestry man­age­ment is es­sen­tial for main- tain­ing healthy bat pop­u­la­tions as well as bal­anced ecosys­tems in forests and wood­land ar­eas.

Bat pop­u­la­tions have de­clined alarm­ingly in re­cent decades. De­spite in­ten­si­fied con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, over half of all bats species are now clas­si­fied by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion as threat­ened or near threat­ened. Habi­tat loss and de­struc­tion, hu­man dis­tur­bance at hi­ber­na­tion sites, in­creas­ing ur­ban­i­sa­tion and epi­demics such as Whitenose Syn­drome – which has killed more than half a mil­lion bats in the United States since 2006 – are putting bats in­creas­ingly in dan­ger.

Bat species through­out the world need con­tin­ued pro­tec­tion. Most peo­ple are un­aware that bats pro­vide in­valu­able ser­vices to the en­vi­ron­ment. Fruit agri­cul­ture, cen­tral to trop­i­cal economies, de­pends to a large ex­tent on the eco­log­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions of fruit bats. Some 134 plants that yield prod­ucts used by hu­mans are par­tially or en­tirely re­liant on bats for seed dis­per­sal or pol­li­na­tion.

The hon­orary am­bas­sador for the Year of the Bat is Dr Mer­lin Tut­tle, a lead­ing ecol­o­gist and wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher and founder of Bat Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional.

“Bats rank among our planet’s most mis­un­der­stood and in­tensely per­se­cuted mam­mals be­cause they are ac­tive only at night and dif­fi­cult to ob­serve and un­der­stand”, says Tut­tle. “Many bats are the pri­mary preda­tors of in­sects that fly at night, for ex­am­ple, in­clud­ing those that cost farm­ers and foresters bil­lions of dol­lars in losses an­nu­ally. When these bat pop­u­la­tions de­cline, de­mands for dan­ger­ous pes­ti­cides grow, as does the cost of grow­ing es­sen­tial crops like rice, corn and cot­ton.”

As the Year of the Bat cam­paign brings these is­sues into fo­cus in 2011, Euro­bats will cel­e­brate the 20th an­niver­sary of the sign­ing of the Agree­ment on the Con­ser­va­tion of Pop­u­la­tions of Euro­pean Bats. A newly-adopted ex­ten­sion of the agree­ment will ex­pand EURO­BATS’ in­flu­ence to 53 species and 62 coun­tries in ad­di­tion to the Euro­pean Union. This will cover 14 new coun­tries in North­ern Africa and the Mid­dle East.

New re­search an­nounced at the Euro­bats con­fer­ence held in Prague late last month has shown that bat species in Europe are the only species to have met the United Na­tions’ 2010 tar­gets for achiev­ing a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in the rate of ecosys­tem and species loss. Yet this suc­cess does not elim­i­nate the need for bat con­ser­va­tion and aware­ness-rais­ing.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts in­creas­ingly re­gard bats as in­di­ca­tors of bio­di­ver­sity and healthy ecosys­tems. With bio­di­ver­sity as an in­te­gral part of the cam­paign, the Year of the Bat will en­cour­age peo­ple across the world to get in­volved in bat con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, so that these fas­ci­nat­ing “masters of the night sky” can con­tinue to de­light us and per­form their in­valu­able ser­vices to the global en­vi­ron­ment. – UNEP

The Breath­ing Cave in Bath County, Vir­ginia, har­bours a huge colony of bats. Bat pop­u­la­tions have de­clined alarm­ingly in re­cent decades.

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