Until a decade ago, the Alma cave in Upper Galilee was home to thousands of rare bats, but recent surveys conducted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel find that only several dozen remain, and they are in danger of complete extinction. The SPNI believes the reason is hikers who disobey rules, causing distress among the bats which then leave the cave.

“Until several years ago, the cave was home to the largest variety of insect-eating bats in Israel. At least nine rare species of bats would leave the cave every evening,” said Dr. Eran Levin, director of the SPNI’s Mammal Center.

“The two main species are the long-winged bat, which has long narrow wings and preys on insects found on trees, and the long-fingered bat, which earned its name because it finds its prey in shallow water and often catches small fish with its feet, which are huge in comparison to its body. Both species are highly important in regulating the insect population, including insects that cause damage to agriculture and human beings,” Levin explained.

“New data reveal that while thousands of these two species resided in the cave in the early 2000s, their number has dwindled dramatically, and in the past four years amounts to only a few dozen,” Levin said. The reason for the decline is “unclear but could be connected to the huge number of hikers that have been going into the cave in recent years. These visitors include large groups of youth who use powerful lighting and are extremely noisy.”

The troubling data will be presented at a seminar on bats to be held on September 20 at Tel Aviv University, with the participation of representatives from the SPNI, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Hikers are requested not to enter major bat breeding centers during the winter; these include the Twins cave, the Sarach cave and Namer cave in western Galilee, the Berenice cave near Tiberias, the Huta 6 cave at Mt. Meron and the Oranit caves in the Carmel. Bats do not sleep deeply during their winter hibernation, and any slight disturbance such as light, noise or touch will awaken them and cause them to resume activity.

Hikers wake up the bats, which immediately need to eat in order to raise their body temperature. When a bat awakens from hibernation, it immediately searches for food; if nourishment is not readily available, the bat uses up energy and endangers its life. “If we can't allow the bats this [hibernation] time, they simply won’t survive, and that would be a great shame,” said Israel Nature and Park Authority officials.

Officials at the SPNI Mammal Center recall that the bat population in Israel decreased dramatically during the period when fruit growers believed they caused damage to the crops, and they were then poisoned in the caves. Nowadays, it is believed that the insect-eating bats are “very useful to agriculture, since they prey on the insects that cause the most damage to crops.”

Israel boasts 33 different species of bats, which constitute a third of all mammals in the country. Only one of the species eats fruit, while all the others feed on insects, making them crucial components of the ecosystem. Apart from the long-fingered and long-winged bats, the Alma cave is home to several other unique bat species, all of which are in danger of extinction.