The youngsters, some wearing elaborate bat costumes, waved their arms as part of a playful demonstration of how bats can fly. These schoolchildren are members of a new Bat Friends Club at their school in Bryansk in western Russia, and this was their first-ever Festival of Bats. The festivities were remarkable for a country where bats are largely ignored, and not just by the public, but by most conservationists as well.
Grassroots Alliance Peresvet, a nonprofit organization that I founded to deal with community issues and especially threats to biodiversity, is working to build a sustainable bat-conservation movement in western Russia by combining citizen science with extensive public education and training. We are supported in part by a Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grant from Bat Conservation International.
Our teams are working in four regions near Russias western border: Bryansk, Kaluga, Kursk and Orel, with a total area of about 55,750 square miles (145,000 square kilometers). Habitats range from coniferous forests to broadleaf and mixed forests to grasslands (steppes). The area has been identified as one of the most important breeding and foraging areas for a number of Russian bat species.
But forested habitat has been lost at an alarming rate for many decades in western Russia, and that loss was exacerbated during the summer of 2010 by a series of devastating forest fires. Although scientific data are generally scarce, the number and diversity of bat populations seem to be declining throughout the region. There is virtually no information on key bat-conservation threats and no sustained monitoring or protection for bats.
Our goal is to build a multifaceted approach to increase knowledge about bat populations, habitats and conservation status, build public awareness about the importance of bats and the need to protect them, and empower local communities and volunteers to monitor and conserve these animals. This is a pilot project that we hope eventually to apply across much of the country.
The centerpiece of our effort is iBats, a citizen-science program developed in the United Kingdom by Bat Conservation Trust and the Zoological Society of London. With their support and assistance, this automobile-based acoustic-monitoring program has spread to at least 17 countries.
iBats Russia is filling major gaps in knowledge about the distribution of bats in our study area and establishing a baseline that will allow continuing monitoring to assess the conservation status of these important bat populations. And through iBats, we are creating a corps of trained, local volunteers who are dedicated to conserving Russias bats.
Our scientific and educational results thus far encourage us to expand iBats into other regions of western Russia.
We conducted a series of community presentations around our study area to stir interest in the project and recruit volunteers. This was followed by a training workshop in bat ecology, monitoring equipment and methodology for the community members and farmers who signed on to organize and conduct the monitoring program.
We mapped specific monitoring routes (or transects), each covering about 25 miles (40 kilometers) of roadway. Each volunteers car was equipped with a time-expansion bat detector, which collects, digitizes and stores bat calls, and a GPS device to accurately locate bats ultrasonic echolocation calls.
From May through September, volunteers set out 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, then drove at a constant 15 miles per hour (25 km/hour) for about 25 miles (40 kilometers) along the prescribed route, collecting bat calls as they went. About 50 volunteers participated.
The sound files, each one to two hours in length, were collected from the bat detectors, then processed it into manageable five-minute segments. We are analyzing those files with appropriate computer software, including iBatsID, which was recently developed by the Zoological Society of London.
During the first six months of monitoring, we collected a total of 50 hours of recordings, representing about 800 individual calls, from 30 transects. All 11 bat species known to occur in the region were recorded, and we have used our data to create an echolocation-call library that identifies unique call characteristics of each species.
Our data are dramatically improving scientific knowledge about the distribution of these bats, and as the monitoring continues, we will prepare new range maps and identify areas with high bat diversity and serious threats to conservation.
Also during this period, we took our education efforts around the region, reaching more than 1,200 people who now have a rather different view of bats. We created posters, banners and brochures that describe the benefits of Russias bats, especially their value for pest control, and the threats they face. We developed and distributed educational materials for use in classrooms and visited schools to encourage Bat Friends Clubs.
We organized and led bat walks, lectures and other activities, including a rare Russian celebration of European Bat Night, and conducted workshops to teach leaders of local groups the basics of bat biology and conservation.
We also introduced the concept of Bat Keepers trained community volunteers dedicated to protecting the bats in their areas. One of the first Bat Keepers is Natalia Koriagina, a geography teacher in a rural school in the village of Domashovo. She first saw and heard bats (with the help of a bat detector) during the iBats Russia survey. She was delighted to learn that bats are not only harmless but extremely beneficial and that many people were unreasonably afraid of the flying mammals. She decided to do something about it and became a Bat Keeper. Now she and her students monitor the bats that roost around the village, make and install bat houses for them and protect the old-growth trees where bats like to roost.
In the Bryansk region, meanwhile, we helped community volunteers prepare two model bat-friendly gardens, lovely parklands with bat-accessible water features, plants that attract insects for bats to eat, bat houses for roosting and other features favored by flying mammals.
Protecting the forgotten bats of Russia is a huge task, and our work has only begun. But we have found that bats have more friends in our region than we had suspected, and many more people seem quite willing to change long-held attitudes, acknowledge the benefits of bats and help to conserve them.
We move into the future with a new optimism.
IGOR PROKOFEV is the founder and coordinator of Grassroots Alliance Peresvet.