Russian Bats at Risk as Wildfires Destroy Forest Habitats

BONN, Germany, August 18, 2010 – Russia’s bats are among the hidden victims of the wildfires that have swept western Russia this summer, killing at least 50 people and enclosing Moscow in an envelope of smog.

Some 30 species of bats are affected and many bat populations are losing their habitats to the flames, according to bat experts in Russia and experts with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in Bonn.

Increasingly, bats are regarded by environmental experts as indicators of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems due to their essential role in sustaining biodiversity through forest regeneration.

Although no official assessments have been conducted, recent satellite images show that more than one million hectares of forests have been destroyed in western Russia.

The Nathusius’ pipistrelle bat is among the species affected by Russia’s wildfires. (Photo by Suren Gazaryan)

The Russian Ministry of Nature Resources estimates that to date the fires have harmed about 40,000 hectares of protected forest areas.

Bat species such as the Noctule, Leisler’s or Nathusius’ pipistrelle roost over the summer in tree hollows and will experience habitat loss long after the wildfires have been contained, bat experts say.

“Our thoughts are with the Russian people who are suffering during this crisis,” says Andreas Streit, executive secretary of EUROBATS, the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats.

This binding international treaty took effect in 1994 and now numbers 32 European states among its Parties.

Streit says EUROBATS will hold its 14th annual European Bat Night on August 28-29 acrosss the European continent to raise public awareness about bats.

“Many people have lost their homes and even entire villages have disappeared. The disappearance of forest habitats adds an extra dimension to the catastrophe,” said Streit. “Forest ecosystems are vital for our planet and for many local communities whose lives are intertwined with forests and nature.”

Although the damaged areas account for only a small part of the vast Russian forests, Streit says the fires could have devastating consequences for populations of migratory bats.

While birds will be mainly affected by air pollution and smoke inhalation, bats will suffer long-term losses of habitats and foraging areas, as well as a decrease of insect prey.

“The areas worst affected by the fires are also the key breeding grounds for long-distance migratory bats”, says Dr. Suren Gazaryan, a bat expert based at Russia’s Institute of Ecology of Mountain Territories. “As a result, the direct impact of forest destruction on bats will be much higher than can be estimated by surface area damage alone.”

Even before the fires broke out, woodland bats in Russia had fewer suitable summer roosts due to forest damage caused by intensive logging practices, plus increased tourist activities in caves where bats hibernate.

Bat in Germany (Photo credit unknown)

Disturbing hibernating bats can kill the animals, says Gazaryan. When a bat is awakened, it consumes a lot of the energy it needs to survive the hibernation period, when food is unavailable.

The World Wildlife Fund in Russia warns that in a few decades, wildfires could become much more common and spread to other parts of the country. WWF-Russia says climate change and abnormal weather phenomena also will increase the likelihood of future species destruction in the important migratory grounds of Europe.

Conservationists also worry about the reduction in the number of fire wardens and personnel working in Russia’s forests. The state forest guard service, which once had 100,000 employees, was closed in 2006.

Russia is not yet a EUROBATS Party, but bat experts in Russia have closely co-operated with EUROBATS since the agreement was signed in 1991.

In Russia, migratory bats are legally protected under regional legislation, as well as under the 1995 national Law on the Animal World. Scientific research, monitoring and bat conservation projects are taking place in Russia, but additional actions to safeguard Russian bat populations are needed, say Streit and Gazaryan.

The UN Environment Programme, which administers the EUROBATS treaty, said today in a statement, “Forests are extremely important ecosystems around the world and are home to many vulnerable and endangered species. The United Nations has designated 2011 as the International Year of Forests to raise global awareness of the urgent need to protect the planet’s fragile forest resources.”

The International Year of Forests will coincide with the Year of the Bat 2011, a joint campaign of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and EUROBATS. The event will promote bat conservation, research and education about the ecological importance of bats.

This year, the International Year of Biodiversity, the UN is fighting an uphill battle to conserve and foster the diversity of plants and animals on Earth.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.