The catastrophic wildfires that have swept across Russia this summer have killed at least 50 people and could cost the country's economy an estimated US$15 billion. But among the hidden victims of the fires are small, nocturnal animals that are fast losing their habitats. Russia's bat population - which boasts some 30 species - has been hit especially hard by the flames.
The areas worst affected by the wildfires are concentrated in western Russia, one of the most important breeding and foraging areas for the country's bat species.
Although no official assessments have been carried out, recent satellite images show that more than one million hectares of forests have been destroyed in western Russia. According to the country's Ministry of Nature Resources, the fires have already harmed about 40,000 hectares of protected forest areas.
Species such as the Noctule, Leisler's or Nathusius' pipistrelle bats roost over summer in tree hollows and will experience a dramatic loss of habitat long after the wildfires have been contained.
'Our thoughts are with the Russian people who are suffering during this crisis,' says Andreas Streit, Executive Secretary of EUROBATS, a UNEP-administered body that promotes bat conservation throughout Europe. 'Many people have lost their homes and even entire villages have disappeared. The disappearance of forest habitats adds an extra dimension to the catastrophe. 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 forest surface in Russia, 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 available prey such as insects.
'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.'
Prior to the fire outbreak, woodland bats in Russia were already facing a reduction of suitable summer roosts. This was mostly due to forest damage caused by intensive logging practices, plus increased tourist activities in caves where bats hibernate. Disturbing hibernating bats can be lethal for the animals. When a bat is woken up, it consumes a lot of the energy it needs to survive the hibernation period, when food is unavailable.
The future for Russia's bats also looks worrying. The World Wildlife Fund in Russia has noted that in a few decades, wildfires could become much more common and spread to other parts of the country. The continuing effects of climate change and abnormal weather phenomena will also increase the likelihood of future species destruction in important migratory grounds in Europe.
The dramatic reduction in the number of fire wardens and personnel working in Russia's forests in recent years is another concern for conservationists. The State forest guard service, which once had 100,000 employees, was closed down in 2006.
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 CMS (The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals) and EUROBATS. The event will promote bat conservation, research and awareness-raising about the ecological importance of bats, including their essential role in sustaining biodiversity through forest regeneration and other contributions. Increasingly, bats are regarded by environmental experts as indicators of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.
Russia is not yet a Party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS), but bat experts in Russia have closely co-operated with EUROBATS since the agreement's signing 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 also taking place in Russia, but additional actions to safeguard Russian bat populations are needed.