This Is Bat Country

The UN has announced it will launch special conservation measures to help the bat population next year, but in Israel efforts are already under way to keep this once-misunderstood species protected

Late last month, the United Nations announced that 2011 has been designated as the European "Year of the Bat." Conservation activities will be undertaken throughout the period, in a number of locales, to protect the flying mammal. (The following year, 2012, says the organization, is to be a global bat year. ) In Israel, the UN declaration will help people who have for some time been making efforts to protect bats. Among other things, enclaves have been set up for bats in a number of urban locales, including Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park.

Activities during the Year of the Bat will focus on education and research, and will feature cooperation with UN and European environmental protection organizations. The UN announcement notes that there are today more than 1,000 types of bat in the world; half of these face extinction, owing to pollution and the destruction of their habitats by human activity.

Sleeping cells for bats in Hayarkon Park, AP

Emphasis during the year will be given to the special contribution made by these mammals toward the protection of ecological systems. For years, bats were one of nature's most misunderstood creatures, suspected of carrying diseases, accused of finding their way into human hair, and of being responsible for many other troubles. In fact, bats assist in bringing wild vegetation to forest areas, and in limiting mosquito infestations. They are natural exterminators, and their activity reduces the need for various insecticides. Some urban areas are host to bats that devour thousands of kilograms of insects a night. In studies of the Pipistrellus kuhlii, the white stripe bat, for example, the mammal was weighed before and after its nighttime activities, and found to eat nearly its entire weight in insects during a single night.

Bats are fully or partly responsible for the spreading of seeds connected to 134 types of plant around the world, many of which are used by humans.

When it comes to the bat, Israel is the region's leading power. As such, it can play an active role in the activities next year. There are 32 types of bat in the country, only 13 fewer than the number of bat types found in all of Europe. All but one type of bat in Israel, the fruit bat, devours insects. The fruit bat is a source of problems owing to its secretions on the sides of buildings. In some cases, trees have been sprayed in order to stop bats from using them as a source of food.

In the past, bats were poisoned somewhat indiscriminately in Israel because the fruit bat was suspected of damaging crops. Extermination efforts against the bat were undertaken in caves - but not only the fruit bat was affected. Circumstances have changed today, and bats enjoy protection in places where they spend the night.

"Today we conduct bat surveys in an orderly way, and undertake activity to protect their night places, in caves," explains Dr. Amit Dolev, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's mammals center. "All told, the bat population is stable, particularly in the north."

Bat researcher Asaf Tsoar, the author of a doctoral dissertation on the fruit bat, stresses that groves and other areas used by bats for sources of food need to be protected.

Israel's Nature and Parks Authority enforces bans on entry to caves known for serving as bat residences.

"In some cases, bars were put in front of caves, to make it difficult for hikers to enter and bother the bats," Dolev says. "We think that in some cases, the bars should be taken down because they make it hard for bats to leave the caves."

A major project undertaken last year featured the protection of white stripe bats in urban areas. Sleeping cells were set up for females in the process of raising newborn young.

Ron Elazari-Volcani, director of the zoological gardens at Tel Aviv University, was in charge of the project, in which nighttime sleeping places were set up in Ramat Gan, Herzliya, Pardes Hannah and most recently in eucalyptus trees on the banks of the Yarkon River.

Doctoral student Eran Levin, from Tel Aviv University's zoology department, who assisted Elazari-Volcani on this project, says that white stripe bats, and their offspring, have found their way to some of the roosts, and are contributing toward the elimination of mosquitoes.

"The project has educational importance, even in cases where bats have yet to find these roosts," he says. "We explain to people what the project is about, and they learn how bats contribute to nature."