Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bats, Caves and Politics

I've mentioned before that my husband Bruce studies bats and that we were recently in the Mountain Pine Ridge in southern Belize for field work. The great thing about this area is the numerous caves that are home to many species of bats. Up in the Gallon Jug area, there is little karst topography and thus little in the way of caves.

The photo above gives a fair idea of a bat cave in southern Belize, showing the bats exiting at dusk. Some caves of course, have far bigger openings making them more accessible to "cave tourism," a type of rapidly growing adventure tourism in Belize. They also may have interesting formations, chambers and Maya artifacts, making them of particular interest to cavers or adventure tourists.

This isn't so great for bats. Many cannot tolerate the disturbance (imagine headlights, flashlights etc.) or changes to the delicate balance of the cave's humidity that a group of humans bring. To say nothing of an appalling first hand story we had from a friend. He entered a cave with a small tour group ... and the guide promptly set off firecrackers to make the bats fly!

Luckily, to survey bats, we don't need to enter the caves. Technology to the rescue. Bruce has pioneered the use of acoustic recording to survey the bats as they enter or exit the cave. All that's needed is a special recording unit and microphone strategically placed outside the cave to "capture" their echolocation calls.

While we appreciate that caving tourism is popular and an important form of revenue for many tourist lodges in Belize and elsewhere, we'd like to see a cave policy where caves critical to bat colonies are left undisturbed. With so many private sector interests, as well as government ministries involved, unfortunately for the bats, that won't happen any time soon.

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