The world is a dangerous place for bats. Although they provide vital environmental and economic services, bat populations are declining around the globe, largely as a result of human activity.
Such an example, is the plight of Fruit bats which have a brutally hard life in Sulawesi, an orchid-shaped island in the heart of Indonesia. A remarkable 22 species of fruit bats live on the island and some of them are found nowhere else. But their numbers are being decimated by overhunting for the commercial “bushmeat” trade, and their treatment on the way to market can only be described as torture.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 26 bat species as Critically Endangered, meaning they face an imminent risk of extinction. Fifty-one others are Endangered, and 954 bat species are considered Vulnerable. Bats also are among the most under-studied of mammals. The IUCN lists 203 bat species as “Data Deficient”– there is simply too little information available to determine their conservation status, and over 150 newly described species have yet to be added to the IUCN Red List and haveyet to be formally assessed.
Because bats reproduce slowly, with females of most species giving birth to only one pup per year, recovery from serious losses is painfully slow and tenuous at best. It is often difficult to spot significant declines in such species until their situation is dire.
Loss of habitat remains the most widespread peril worldwide. The forests many bats use for roosting and/or foraging for food are disappearing at a frightful rate – shrunken by timber harvests or cleared to make room for farm crops, mining operations, cattle pastures or cities. This is especially critical in the tropical rainforests, with both a rich diversity of bats species and a precipitous loss of woodlands.
Countless bats are being driven out of roosts in caves and abandoned mines because of inappropriate guano mining (bat droppings, or guano, are a valuable fertilizer) or thoughtless tourism. During the winter months, large numbers of bats hibernate in caves and mines. If roused from hibernation, often by human disturbance, bats can burn through the stores of fat they need to survive the winter.
In much of the world, bats are still casually killed because of harmful myths and misplaced fears. In Latin America, whole colonies of beneficial bats are routinely destroyed in the mistaken belief that all bats are vampires. (In reality, only three of the more than 1,300 bat species feed on blood and all are in Latin America.)
In regions such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands bats are hunted, both as bush meat for local consumption and commercially for markets and restaurants. Large, fruit-eating bats are the primary targets. Bats are also used in some folk medicines.
In North America, meanwhile, over 5.7 million of bats have been killed by White-nose Syndrome, a wildlife disease that continues its spread across the continent. Caused by a cold-loving fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, WNS attacks hibernating bats, causing mortality rates that approach 100 percent at some sites. The disease was first spotted in a cave in Upstate New York in February 2006 and has since expanded across the eastern half of the United States and Canada. Despite tireless scientific efforts to find a solution, the disease is still killing huge numbers of bats. Until the arrival of WNS, two Endangered U.S. species, the Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis) and gray myotis (M. grisescens), were showing promising signs of recovery. That now seems doubtful. And scientists predict that the once common little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), will be reduced to just 1% of its pre-WNS population numbers by 2030.
The dramatic growth of wind energy throughout much of the world is also taking a huge toll on bats.
Scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of bats are killed each year in the United States by collisions with the spinning blades of wind turbines or rapid pressure change at turbines that can rupture blood vessels. BCI and its partners have been working since 2004 to minimize bat fatalities at wind sites.
At least one cost-effective strategy has been shown to reduce the death toll, and conservationists are working to get it adopted.
Bats face a daunting array of mortal dangers in virtually every corner of the world. Bat Conservation International has been working since 1982 to ensure that these extraordinary bats will still be serving natural environments and human economies far into the future.