Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 19, Issue 1, Spring 2001

Conservation Progress in Latin America

A multi-national effort to preserve the world’s most diverse bat populations

By Steve Walker

Explosive population growth and development characterize many Latin American countries, seriously jeopardizing bats and ecosystems that depend on them. More than 290 species of bats inhabit Latin America—the richest and most diverse bat fauna in the world—and in many areas, bats comprise more than half of all mammal species.

Throughout the region’s rain forests, savannahs and deserts, bats pollinate fruits and disperse seeds of many ecologically and economically important plants. These include numerous trees prized for timber, as well as plants that provide such famous items as hemp, kapok, chicle latex, tequila liquor, palm oil and palm hearts, cashew nuts, guavas, papayas and avocados. Tequila liquor and pitaya fruits, both from bat-dependent plants, rank among Mexico’s most lucrative products, and Venezuela’s bat-pollinated Saquisaqui tree is one of its most valuable sources of timber.

Bats also rank among Latin America’s most important natural controllers of night-flying insects, from moths, beetles and crickets to leafhoppers and mosquitoes. Many of these insects are serious pests, and by consuming huge quantities, bats contribute greatly to human and environmental health.

Sadly, despite their essential roles, vast numbers of Latin America’s most beneficial bats have been destroyed. Vampire bats do harm livestock, but because they form small, inconspicuous colonies in a wide variety of locations, they are seldom found by ranchers and local communities who attempt to control them. Instead, beneficial species, which form far larger and more obvious colonies in caves, are the ones typically found and killed. In the 1960s, a single Brazilian campaign poisoned and dynamited more than 8,000 bat caves, while an estimated 900,000 bats per year, mostly beneficial species, were destroyed in Venezuela. In large part, due to educational efforts led by BCI, such massive efforts are now rare.

However, hundreds of bat roosts continue to be destroyed each year by as yet uninformed local communities and ranchers, and many more will be lost without the educational resources that only BCI and its collaborating partners in Latin America provide. The needs are urgent, and the consequences of inaction are serious. Nevertheless, we are pleased to report the dramatic progress now being made by our Latin American partners.

Steven M. Walker is BCI’s Associate Executive Director and leader of Latin American conservation initiatives.

Without bats pollinating flowers or dispersing seeds, the diversity of animals and plants living in rain forests diminishes, threatening delicate balances with unknown consequences. –Merlin D. Tuttle

BCI’s Latin American partners work daily, using BCI resources, to address needs in their home countries. The following field reports highlight their efforts...

by Rodrigo A. Medellín

Bats inhabit every corner of Mexico. Of the country’s 140 species, 38 are also found in the U.S., and many are migratory. This means that only a concerted, binational effort can protect them.

Established in 1994, the Program for the Conservation of Migratory Bats is a partnership between the Institute of Ecology of Mexico’s National Autonomous University and BCI, and the effort has grown to include both the U.S. and Mexican governments. We initially focused on three migratory species: the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), and endangered lesser (Leptonycteris curasoae) and greater (Leptonycteris nivalis) long-nosed bats. Through research and environmental education we have been able to implement a wide variety of critical conservation actions.

Currently, we are working to find ways to conserve habitats along migratory corridors and protect key roosts along migration routes. We are monitoring 22 important caves in 15 Mexican states, learning more about their population fluctuations, diet, reproduction, genetics and other aspects of their biology. We are also examining the value of bats to local economies.

Our environmental education group, led by Laura Navarro, has worked closely with communities near bat caves, teaching local people about the bats’ vital ecological roles as pollinators, seed dispersers and regulators of insect pests. To introduce bats to children, we have created a series of bilingual books with bat mascots. Complete educational packages include storybooks, toys, activity booklets for children and teachers, and games, all emphasizing the value of bats and teaching about their needs. Finally, the award-winning radio series, “Aventuras al Vuelo (Adventures in Flight),” has been broadcast through Radio Educación, the official broadcast of Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education. The series of 20, 15-minute long programs has now reached many thousands of Mexican schoolchildren.

Other conservation initiatives have included amendment of Mexico’s Federal Law of Wildlife to encompass all caves and crevices as de facto protected areas, designing management plans for specific caves and establishing partnerships with local organizations to protect their caves. The governor of Nuevo Leon has also announced that the state is establishing a new, protected natural area that includes Mexico’s largest bat cave, Cueva de la Boca, and the surrounding mountains. Because of BCI and the Program for the Conservation of Migratory Bats, numbers of bats in the cave have grown from 100,000 to nearly 1.5 million since 1995. The success of these initiatives is evident in the significant growth of bat populations in this and other caves identified as immediate priorities, as well as in changing attitudes across the country.

Rodrigo A. Medellín is a BCI Scientific Advisor and leader of the Program for the Conservation of Migratory Bats. He is also a professor in the Institute of Ecology at the National University of Mexico, Mexico City.

by Luis F. Aguirre

In late 1998, a long-awaited and ambitious program for conservation of bats in Bolivia took flight after a meeting sponsored by BCI [BATS, Winter 1998]. Through education, conservation and research projects, the Program for the Conservation of Bolivian Bats has now reached people in La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, Bolivia’s three largest cities.

In January, 2001, I participated in the production of Bolivia’s List of Threatened Species. As a result, 20 bat species have been accorded special concern, and Linneaus’ false vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum) is listed as endangered. Most of these species are living in fragile ecosystems such as savannahs and mountain forests.

Isabel Galarza, our education director, recently presented workshops at 30 schools in 15 communities. Most of the schools were situated in the countryside where bats are seen as “creepy, blood-sucking creatures,” but the schedule also included schools in cities. Through these presentations, our members taught more than 1,700 children about the benefits of bats to ecosystems and to humans. Tests given before and after the presentations indicated a significant increase in knowledge and a strong commitment to conservation as a result.

We also created a permanent bat exhibit for the Museum of Natural History of La Paz. This exhibit, which premiered in April, 2000, displays Dr. Merlin Tuttle’s photographs of Latin American bats, and includes the video, Los Murciélagos de América Latina, produced by BCI. So far, more than 7,000 people have viewed the exhibit and have participated in interactive games that emphasize the conservation message. Another interactive game is being used to teach about bats and biodiversity at the Kusillo Interactive Museum, which hosts more than 400,000 visitors annually.

Newspaper and magazine articles have also appeared nationwide, supporting the program, and “Aventuras al Vuelo” has been broadcast in communities across Bolivia, reaching more than 100,000 people.

During 2000, we established several agreements that will help to protect bats. The most important was with the National Service of Protected Areas, the government office responsible for regulating development within the Bolivian protected areas, allowing our members to provide lectures for park residents and to educate park rangers who reach thousands of visitors each year.

Through research in Repechón Cave, located in Carrasco National Park, we will soon assess public impact on bat populations and provide recommendations on how to feature bats as a tourist attraction without disturbing their roosts. Finally, with the support of the Instituto de Ecología (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés), we will distribute ANDIRA, our official bat conservation bulletin, along with the Institute’s internationally prestigious scientific magazine, Ecología en Bolivia. As we develop new partnerships in coming years, I believe that by adopting BCI’s non-confrontational approach, we will maximize our impact on educators, industry representatives, conservation organizations and schoolchildren, leading to a brighter future for Bolivian bats.

Luis F. Aguirre coordinates the Program for the Conservation of Bolivian Bats. He is a researcher at the Unidad de Biodiversidad y Genetica of the Universidad Mayor de San Simon in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

by José R. Ochoa

Bats represent 45 percent of Venezuela’s known mammal species and inhabit almost every ecosystem in our country. Recent inventories reveal at least 156 species, many of which live in lowland forests that cover vast areas of the nation. After three decades of research, we have learned to appreciate the ecological and economic values of bats and have begun to understand their role in healthy ecosystems.

In 1995, we established a very important partnership between the Venezuelan Association for the Protection of Natural Areas (ACOANA) and BCI for the conservation of Venezuelan bats. Since that time, we have: 1) trained federal biologists and foresters on the importance of bats as critical pollinators and seed dispersers on commercial forestlands; 2) informed health officials, scientists and indigenous community leaders about methods for controlling vampire bats, and 3) taught research scientists to use the latest technologies for inventorying bat communities.

Currently, we are working with the Kuyujani (the council for indigenous communities in the Caura region), the Center for Desert Ecological Research and the National Experimental University Francisco Miranda, to conserve bat communities in territories of the Caura River Watershed, Guyana, and caves of the Paraguaná Peninsula. These caves are important roosts for lesser long-nosed bats, including one of the most important maternity colonies known in northern South America. BCI advice, funding and donations of educational materials have been a major factor in furthering ACOANA’s efforts to conserve Venezuela’s biodiversity, and BCI scholarships have supported several pre- and post-graduate research projects that are contributing greatly to conservation progress.

José R. Ochoa is a BCI Scientific Advisor, Director of the Venezuelan Association for the Conservation of Natural Areas and leader of the bat conservation effort in Venezuela.

by Arturo Mann

Unlike Latin American neighbors to the north, my country is temperate, and as a result, is home to only 10 species of bats. Also, unlike other parts of Latin America, vampire bats are not a concern in Chile. They do not prey on livestock. In fact, they live only in a few isolated sea caves along our central and northern Pacific coast and feed on marine birds and sea lions.

Similar to temperate North America, most Chilean bat species are insectivores, and we share several wide-ranging species including Mexican free-tailed, red (Lasiurus borealis) and hoary (L. cinereus) bats. In all, seven bat genera are represented in our country.

I read with great interest articles in BATS magazine documenting BCI’s conservation successes in other parts of South America, and decided that I could facilitate the same kind of collaboration to address important bat issues in Chile.

Due to loss of natural roosts associated with agriculture and urban sprawl, hundreds of Mexican free-tailed bat colonies reside in buildings throughout Chile. Public health officials had been monitoring these roosts, and when even one animal tested positive for rabies, they eradicated the entire colony under the mistaken impression that they were “rabid colonies.” Among bat scientists it is well known that nothing resembling an outbreak of rabid bats has ever been detected. Health officials also lacked training in humane exclusion techniques, and knew nothing about opportunities to relocate beneficial bat colonies into artificial habitats such as bat houses.

During the summer of 2000, I contacted Dr. Gary McCracken at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and BCI’s Steve Walker about the possibility of organizing and conducting a workshop for employees of the Ministries of Public Health and Agriculture and Livestock. They agreed, and in October, 2000, we trained government officials and biologists in current methods to survey bat populations, effective ways to manage bats in buildings and construction and placement of artificial habitats for bats. While here, McCracken and Walker also took tissue samples of Mexican free-tailed bats for later DNA analysis to help researchers understand the bats’ seasonal population movements and/or migration patterns. Another workshop is planned for late 2001.

As a direct result of the workshop, the public health service will begin teaching effective exclusion techniques to the pest control industry using BCI guidelines. They are also planning to work more closely with the construction industry to teach them how to design buildings that do not attract bats, and will cooperate with BCI and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to experiment with artificial roosts.

Using a trunk of donated Spanish-language educational materials, the Minister of Education is now promoting use of the curricula in public and private schools throughout the country, and as host of “Dr. Arturo Mann’s Interesting Animals,” a weekly national television program that reaches millions, I have been able to highlight the many values of Chile’s bats. Though much remains to be done, we are encouraged by the positive response we are receiving to our conservation message.

Arturo Mann is a leading mammalogist, naturalist and environmental educator in Chile. He is a professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Santo Tomas in Santiago, Chile.

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