Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 30, Issue 2, Summer 2012

BCI's Birthday: 30 years of Bat Conservation

Global Grassroots Conservation Fund

Sowing the seeds of bat conservation

A decade ago, vampire bats began visiting the tiny, traditional village of A'Ukre – 29 rough houses hidden deep in the Amazon jungle. The homes had many openings and no screens to keep the bats from swooping inside each night. Villagers were discussing hunting or poison to deal with the vampires – a solution that would inevitably kill countless fruit-, nectar- and insect-eating bats that are vital to the region's ecological health.

Sandra Peters, then a graduate student and BCI Scholarship recipient at the University of Toronto in Canada, was conducting research in the area when she heard about the problem and met with villagers. She turned to BCI for help in 2003 and was awarded a Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grant for the princely sum of $1,345.

She and the A'Ukre villagers spent three busy weeks installing mosquito netting across all the openings on the houses. The entire village was protected. And along the way, Peters taught her hosts that only a few of the area's bats are vampires and the others provide many economic and environmental benefits.

When Peters found a bat living the house where she was staying, she said many villagers offered to kill it for her. But Peters explained this was a helpful and harmless fruit bat, and it was spared. Several months later, she learned that village children named the bat after her, and youngsters would often visit the house to be entertained by its antics.

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The A'Ukre project showcases the power of Global Grassroots. Launched in 2000, the program is designed to spread the seeds of bat conservation around the world. It magnifies the impact of modest grants by tapping into the commitment of homegrown conservationists dealing in their own way with local challenges.

We have so far provided 97 Global Grassroots grants for conservation efforts in 50 countries outside the United States and Canada. These awards have averaged barely $2,545 each since the program began in 2000. Yet their impact has been profound.

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In Madagascar in 2004, Madagascar flying foxes were declining rapidly because of hunting and habitat loss. Then two local conservation groups received a Global Grassroots grant. They launched a bat-poster contest for schoolchildren, and took a generator, an old TV and a bat-education video dubbed in the Malagsy language to villages beyond the reach of electricity. The video drew every kid in the region – and most of the adults. Local leaders agreed to regulate bat hunting in the area.

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Global Grassroots is not a one-size-fits-all program. These projects are proposed by people on the scene, mostly residents but occasionally outside scientists working with local groups. They identify local bat-conservation problems and develop their own location- and culture-based plans to solve them.

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Bats along the coast of Kenya, for example, face a host of threats, from expanding agriculture to vandalism and witch doctors who use bat caves for casting spells. A team from the National Museums of Kenya won a Global Grassroots grant to begin turning the tide in 2009. They educated villagers about the values of the bats, which were generally considered evil omens. Interested residents were recruited for bat-conservation workshops, followed by rare surveys of bat-roosting sites. They shared their new knowledge of bats with their home communities. And the work begins.

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Education is almost always a key part of Global Grassroots projects. Few of the Earth's creatures are subject to more harmful myths and misinformation than bats. Accurate information about the benefits of bats is essential before real conservation can begin.

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Thousands of flying foxes roost in the trees surrounding the 450-year-old Ma Toc Pagoda in Vietnam. But their numbers were decreasing rapidly because, schoolteacher Ly Quoc Dang warned in 2007, "the hunters greatly outnumber the monks." He used Global Grassroots funds to teach schoolchildren, with games and activities, how bats care for the forests by pollinating plants and scattering seeds – and why people should care about bats. The goal is a protected Nature Reserve.

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The immediate goal of the Global Grassroots Conservation fund is to provide knowledge that can convince communities to protect their bats and empower them to do so. When these seeds of awareness sprout among a few dedicated individuals, continuing conservation often results. Formal organizations and informal networks are born that can, with encouragement and support, grow into powerful voices for bat conservation, as we are seeing in such places as Nepal, Ukraine, Colombia and Kenya.

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University student Sujas Phuyal completed the first survey of bat diversity in Nepal's scenic Pokhara Valley with a Grassroots grant in 2005. He identified 11 bat species – and educated dozens of rural residents about bats. Since then, Grassroots has funded projects by five other young Nepalese conservationists, most recently a very successful radio-education effort. Bat clubs sprouted at schools and university students formed Bat Friends. Now bats face a much more positive future in Nepal.

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Global Grassroots' seeds are sprouting throughout the world.

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