A handful of dedicated, homegrown conservationists have been working quietly and tenaciously against long odds to build outposts for bat conservation around much of Africa. Although rarely noticed by the rest of the world’s bat researchers and conservationists, their impact and their numbers have been growing slowly but steadily. Now, with a united leap forward in February, they are no longer isolated. And they aren’t likely to go unnoticed much longer.
Thirty bat specialists from 19 African countries worked together during an intense, weeklong African Bat Conservation Summit in Kenya, their first joint meeting ever, and created a continent-wide collaboration – a new network called Bat Conservation Africa (BCA).
“I never imagined that Africa had such talented and passionate bat researchers. This congress made me realize that African bats have their champions,” said participant Vikash Tatayah of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in Mauritius, an island nation about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) off Africa’s southeastern coast.
BCA is uniquely African, but it incorporates modified elements of existing bat-conservation networks. A dozen conservationists from the United States, Latin America, Europe and Australia shared their experiences in building similar networks in Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and elsewhere. (See “Critical Areas for Bat Conservation,” page 10.)
“This is an historic milestone, which marks a new era for bat conservation on the African continent,” said Dave Waldien, BCI’s Director of International Programs. “It is an honor to work with people so dedicated to bat conservation.”
Bat Conservation International initiated the summit, provided core financing and travel expenses for many of the delegates, and worked with key partners to organize the unprecedented meeting at the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute in Naivasha.
Other sponsors included: Beneficia Foundation, Rufford Foundation, The Field Museum, Woodtiger Fund, Island Foundation, U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service International Programs, The Specified Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, The Brown Foundation Inc. of Houston and USAID.
The participants discussed at length the many challenges that have for years complicated and slowed bat conservation work in Africa. Some countries simply lack anyone with expertise in bat biology and conservation, and those few working for bats in other countries are largely isolated and ignored. Funding is always very limited, equipment such as bat detectors and mist nets is in short supply and training opportunities are rare. A major problem is that few African conservationists have the expertise to write and submit effective proposals for grants and other funding.
Ultimately, the network hopes to improve communication and collaboration among the dedicated but widely scattered conservationists of Africa and their partners around the world, to identify key bat-conservation priorities and build conservation capacity through education and training across the continent.
The immediate needs are to develop a Bat Conservation Africa website (a virtual headquarters) and an accessible list of members and their skill sets to enhance the sharing of ideas and data that marked the summit.
“There is a long list of things we need to do, but we have a very good plan and a lot of good people on our team,” said Robert Kityo of Uganda’s Makerere University. “Working together, we shall make this happen.”
Kityo, who was elected to chair the BCA steering committee, recalled that “when I first started working with bats in about 1987, it was very hard to find anyone in Africa who was doing bat work. It was very humbling. But over the years, our capacity has really grown.”
The network, he said, will provide a microphone to amplify a shared message for bat conservation. “In the course of this week, we have built up a lot of momentum and collected a lot of good ideas. We must not leave those ideas behind. We must take them with us and make them work. We’re going to make some mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.”
Other members of the steering committee, each representing a continental region, are Vice Chair Iroro Tanshi of the University of Benin in Nigeria (Western Africa); Eric Bakwo fils of the University of Maroua in Cameroon (Central Africa); Julie Razafimanahaka, Director of Madagasikara Voakajy in Madagascar (West Indian Ocean Islands); and Ernest Seamark, Director of AfricanBats in South Africa (Southern Africa). Kityo represents Eastern Africa, and the Northern Africa seat will be filled later.
“Africa is a crucial frontier for bat conservation,” said BCI Executive Director Andy Walker. “It is home to over 20 percent of the world’s more than 1,250 bat species, yet bats have been largely ignored in favor of Africa’s more charismatic megafauna – the lions and elephants that intrigue the public. But the commitment and enthusiasm of the local conservationists at this summit promise a much brighter future for these invaluable flying mammals.”
Bats are critical for the ecological and economic health of Africa. Many species help protect agricultural crops by consuming huge quantities of insect pests, while fruit- and nectar-eating bats pollinate important plants and scatter seeds that help restore damaged forests. Yet bat populations are declining in much of Africa due to loss of habitat, disturbance of cave roosts, overuse of pesticides and, in some areas, bushmeat hunting. And bats are widely feared because of myths linking them to witchcraft and evil spirits.
Bat Conservation Africa is a first, giant step toward meeting some of those challenges. “We have strong goals, but now we’ve got to follow up and make them happen,” Tanshi said. Otherwise, it’s just going to be another meeting that doesn’t change anything. But I am very optimistic. Now we are going to have a much brighter future for bat conservation in Africa.”
And Kityo, who stood before a whiteboard that bore the words “BE REALISTIC!” during his presentation, added a key point: “We must build a strong capacity for fundraising. That’s what makes our dreams possible.”
One of the world’s leading bat biologists, Paul Racey of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, described “almost all of Africa” as part of a “bat-conservation void” during the 2010 International Bat Research Conference at Prague (BATS, Spring 2011).
“I was wrong,” he said as the Kenya summit was ending. “What had appeared to an outside observer to be a conservation void turns out not to have been a void at all because of the enthusiasm of individuals like these for bat research and conservation in many African countries.
“From little acorns very big trees can grow. We must ensure that this acorn – Bat Conservation Africa – germinates and is nursed to maturity.”
The African Bat Conservation Summit and Bat Conservation Africa, says Moses Chibesa of Copperbelt University in Zambia, shine as “a new light to revive bat conservation in Zambia and [throughout] Africa.”
Now, as the scattered bat champions of Africa become a unified network, more than 250 bat species should benefit from the power of commitment and collaboration.
ROBERT LOCKE is Director of Publications for Bat Conservation International and Coordinator of the BCI Student Research Scholarships and Global Grassroots Conservation Fund.