Volume 19, Issue 2, Summer 2001

Bats and Biodiversity Education in Bulgaria

European researchers promote conservation amid political unrest...

By Paul Elliott

Despite a decade of political, economic, and social upheaval, Bulgaria's bat population is hanging on, thanks to dynamic and dedicated people working to better understand the needs of their country's bats and how to protect them. There have been significant declines in bat populations, but all 30 European species still thrive in Bulgaria's warm summers, extensive forests, and caves. Twenty-five percent of Bulgaria is composed of limestone karst that is riddled with caves, gorges, and underground rivers. In a country the size of Tennessee, there are more than 5,000 caves, at least 74 of which are known to be used by bats.

In August 1993, I attended the European Bat Research Symposium in Evora, Portugal. There I met Teodora Ivanova, "Tea" to her friends. She discussed Bulgaria's bats and their conservation needs with transparencies that showed more roosting bats in a single photo than most British bat workers can hope to see in a lifetime. I resolved to help Tea promote public knowledge of the region's bats and biodiversity.

A researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in the capital city of Sofia, Tea also runs the Bat Research and Protection Group, a lively collection of professional ecologists and dedicated amateur scientists. My opportunity to help Tea came when I and my colleague Sue Barker won funding from the British Government's Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species. This is a fund to help Britons work in countries that are richer in biodiversity than Britain, but have limited economic resources. After discussing our ideas with Tea and other Bulgarian contacts we decided to design a program for biodiversity education in Bulgarian schools. We wanted to develop exciting, interactive ideas to help teachers introduce their students to the rich diversity of their country and to the issues and conflicts raised by the need for conservation.

We believe raising public awareness of biodiversity issues in schools is essential to conservation and sustainable development. Schoolchildren are not only the next generation of decision-making adults, but are often effective at lobbying their parents and other adults on conservation matters. Whatever we produced, it had to be low-cost or no-cost if teachers were going to be able to use it in the classroom.

During our first visits to Bulgaria, Tea and Dimitar Uzinov, a fellow bat enthusiast, wildlife photographer, and botanist, took us to several bat sites, including two caves that demonstrate the type of disturbances that bats have had to endure in Bulgaria. Just to the north of the Stara Planina Mountains that run like a backbone across Bulgaria, in the valley of the River Osam, is the 1,650-yard-long (1,508.76 m) Devetaska Pestera Cave. It is an ancient place with evidence of human occupation dating back 70,000 years: a reminder of Bulgaria's geographic position on the crossroads between southern Europe and Asia.

More recently the cave and its bats have suffered at the hands of the military, which installed giant oil storage tanks in the 1960s. Fortunately, they have been removed and the Ministry of the Environment has declared it a fully protected area. In practice, however, there is nothing to inform people of its protected status, and enforcement is difficult. While we were there, two men took a small tractor and trailer into the cave to remove sand from the riverbed. The diesel engine caused tremendous noise and filled the cave with fumes. There was also evidence of picnics and people camping in the entrance to the cave through the summer. Despite these disturbances, Tea pointed out more than 6,000 bats in the cave, including Schreiber's bent-winged bats (Miniopterus schreibersi), European greater myotis (Myotis myotis), long-fingered myotis (Myotis capaccinii), and Mediterranean horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus euryale). This was in September when maternity colonies had mostly dispersed.

In June, the cave is home to around 17,000 expectant mothers. Tea hopes to install interpretive signs at the cave entrance to inform locals and visitors of the importance of protecting the bats.
The following day we visited the Nevanka Gorge and Ememskata Peschtera Cave. We soon encountered bats, including a large colony of the majestic greater horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). This also is a site that has suffered from human disturbance. From 1959 to approximately 1977, the cave was used for commercial mushroom growing, evidenced by the fact that it now has a flat concrete floor. Later, it was used as a military store with an elevator installed from the army base above the gorge.

When the army abandoned the site, the cave received legal protection in 1980. There has been an increase in ecotourism to the area in the last three years; while a welcome boost to the local economy, the development must be managed in a sustainable way if it is to avoid threatening the very wildlife people have come to admire. Bulgaria has huge potential as a destination for wildlife viewers and the region already attracts many bird watchers. Bat-watching tours could be an economic benefit for local communities that safeguard important sites, but careful planning is needed to work within the law and to avoid activities that disturb colonies.
After developing ideas for biodiversity education and producing draft resources that were translated into Bulgarian, we returned to Bulgaria in May 1999 to conduct a series of workshops around the country. Because of the bombing campaign in neighboring Serbia, many foreigners had canceled their visits to Bulgaria. Our presence was much appreciated, because the fledgling tourism industry had virtually collapsed.

In our honor, the show cave of Uchlovitsa was opened near one of our workshop venues. This cave is protected by a gate and is closed to visitors during the winter when it is used by hibernating bats. Our visit was featured in the local newspaper, the Smolian Echo, which helped us to reach the public with a pro-biodiversity, pro-bat message.

The aim of the workshops was to test our ideas with teachers, student teachers, and others interested in environmental education. Most of the workshop participants were familiar with fairly traditional and formal teaching approaches and were surprised by the role-playing, poster-designing, model-making, and game-playing ideas, but they were gradually won over
and everyone had fun. The workshops were conducted using interpreters, which led to some amusing misunderstandings, and we were disconcerted by the way participants demonstrated agreement or understanding by shaking their heads rather
than nodding.

The workshop members knew very little about bats and asked questions such as, "Why do bats hang upside down?" but by the end they appreciated the animals and their conservation needs. Of all the case studies worked on, it was the bats that stole the show and generated the most enthusiastic response. Indeed, it was an excellent recruitment opportunity for the Bat Research and Protection Group.

With the help of our Bulgarian friends we produced, Ecological Adventures in Bulgaria: From the Classroom to the Karst, a Teaching Resource for Biodiversity Education in Bulgaria, being distributed free of charge to teachers all over Bulgaria. The resource is also available in English and Bulgarian language versions at a Web site accessible from the University of Warwick at www.warwick.ac.uk.

It was a rewarding experience getting to know Bulgaria, its people, and its wildlife. We were honored to work with such dedicated people and hope we made a useful contribution to raise young people's awareness of bats and other wildlife. With luck, Bulgaria will soon begin to enjoy greater prosperity that will help protect the country's wonderful natural heritage.

Dr. Paul Elliott is based in the Warwick Institute of Education at the University of Warwick, England. He is involved in teacher education programs, specializing in science education and biology. He also chairs the Warwickshire Bat Group and offers advice to bat roost owners.

Dr. Paul Elliott is based in the Warwick Institute of Education at the University of Warwick, England. He is involved in teacher education programs, specializing in science education and biology. He also chairs the Warwickshire Bat Group and offers advice to bat roost owners.

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