Bat Conservation International is honoring two of the many who have had a major impact on bat conservation. From among the nominations received from members, staff and friends, we have chosen these bat champions for our 2012 BCI Conservation Impact Awards.
Science: Al Hicks
Wildlife Biologist, New York Department of Environmental Conservation (retired)
Al Hicks raised the alarm. In February 2006, a caver’s photo showed bats hibernating at Howes Cave in upstate New York with a white powder on their muzzles. In January 2007, the floors of four nearby caves were littered with thousands of dead bats. And the white powder was there. Hicks, wildlife biologist at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, began asking colleagues and cavers if they knew anything about “this white-nose condition.” No one had an answer, but the plague got its name: White-nose Syndrome.
After another year, the WNS had spread to three other northeastern states with disastrous results for hibernating-bat populations. Scientists and conservationists throughout the region and beyond turned their attention to this new wildlife disease, and the media began to pay attention. Hicks was a prime mover in focusing scientific attention on WNS and won considerable public support through often-emotional appearances in newspapers and television.
“One of Al’s greatest contributions is the passion he has inserted into scientific discussions of White-nose Syndrome,” says Mylea Bayless, BCI’s Director of Programs. At a WNS Science Strategy Meeting in 2009, scientists were discussing research plans that required captive bats when Hicks interjected: “Mr. Chairman, I have no more bats.” He said later he meant there were too few survivors to risk in research without rapid results. But that plaintive comment expressed a deep sadness many in the fight against WNS still face each day.
Hicks retired in 2010 after 33 years with the state agency. But he remains involved through Vesper Environmental, a bat-related consulting firm he co-founded in hopes of “coordinating some of the small but important cooperative projects that no one has the time to oversee.”
No matter how daunting the challenge of WNS, he once said, we must keep up the fight. “The alternative is to sit and wring your hands and do nothing. Then at the end of the day, you haven’t helped.”
Al Hicks is still helping.
Advocacy/Education: Nurul Islam
It seems almost miraculous at times, but in many countries where bats are often hated, feared and slaughtered, one person somehow steps up to champion these beleaguered creatures. In Bangladesh, that person is a student at the Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University: Nurul Islam.
Bangladesh is home to at least 33 bat species. Very little is known about them, and most of what the public knows is simply wrong. Most believe bats are blind, dirty pests that destroy crops, have no ecological value and defecate from their mouths. Bat conservation is not on the agenda. Bat populations are believed to be declining because of habitat loss and illegal hunting for food and folk medicines.
That was the challenge facing Islam when he began planning a “holistic bat conservation” plan for his country. He recruited and trained nine students from various colleges, developed a range of education and outreach materials in the Bangla language and set out on the first conservation-education program in Bangladesh.
Armed with a BCI Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grant, he debunked the myths and educated students about the benefits of bats at 15 schools, plus adults in five villages. The team conducted outreach activities at two zoos and the Bangladesh Agricultural Fair. He worked with farmers and fruit-growers on bat protection and trained 20 volunteers in bat biology and conservation. He even reached out to hunters – albeit with limited success.
Islam is planning now to expand his conservation mission across much more of his country. Among many other goals, he hopes to find a more bat-friendly method of keeping flying foxes away from fruit trees than the often-lethal nets now being used.
Nurul Islam still faces immense challenges, but the bats of Bangladesh finally have a champion working on their behalf.