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The United Nations and partners today launched the Year of the Bat to conserve the world's only flying mammal and its critical role in seed dispersal and pollination for the benefit of humankind.

“From insect-eating bats in Europe that provide important pest control to seed-dispersing bats in the tropics that help sustain rainforests, bats deliver vital ecosystem services across a wide range of environments,” the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said, noting that bat populations have declined alarmingly in recent decades due to habitat loss, human disturbance at hibernation sites, increasing urbanization and epidemics.

The joint campaign, led by the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS), concluded under the auspices of the CMS, will draw attention to the world's 1100 bat species – around half of which are currently at risk.

“Compared to animals like tigers and elephants, bats receive little positive attention,” EUROBATS Executive Secretary Andreas Streit said. “But they are fascinating mammals and play an indispensable role in maintaining our environment.”

The Year was launched in Prague, the Czech capital, where EUROBATS is holding its sixth session of member parties. The actual Year will be spread over two years with 2011 focusing on a European campaign and then the event going global in 2012.

Bat species throughout the world need continued protection, UNEP said in a news release. “Most people are unaware that bats provide invaluable services to the environment,” it stressed. “Fruit agriculture, central to tropical economies, depends to a large extent on the ecological contributions of fruit bats. An estimated 134 plants that yield products used by humans are partially or entirely reliant on bats for seed dispersal or pollination.”

Bat populations in large urban areas can consume up to 30,000 pounds of insects in a single night. They play a role in tourism. One of the most unusual sights in Austin, Texas, is the Congress Bridge bat flight from mid-March until November, when over 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats stream into the sky at dusk on their nightly forage for food. A popular tourist attraction, the spectacular flight generates millions of dollars for the city each year.

“When migrating, bats can travel up to 4,000 kilometres in one year,” CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Mrema said. “Africa's greatest mammal migration involves 8 million fruit bats that fly into Zambia from across the continent each year. This flight is an incredible spectacle that scientists are still unravelling.”

Besides the Arctic, Antarctic and a few isolated oceanic regions, bats are found everywhere on Earth. Having inhabited the planet for the last 50 million years, bats today make up nearly a quarter of the global mammal population.

The Year of the Bat will coincide with the UN's International Year of Forests next year. Bat species disperse seeds and aid pollination in temperate and tropical forests, helping to regenerate and sustain almost a third of the Earth's land area. Sustainable forestry management is essential for maintaining healthy bat populations as well as balanced ecosystems in forests and woodland areas.

Honorary ambassador for the Year is Merlin Tuttle, a leading United States ecologist and wildlife photographer and founder of Bat Conservation International. “Bats rank among our planet's most misunderstood and intensely persecuted mammals because they are active only at night and difficult to observe and understand,” he said.

“Many bats are the primary predators of insects that fly at night, for example, including those that cost farmers and foresters billions of dollars in losses annually. When these bat populations decline, demands for dangerous pesticides grow, as does the cost of growing essential crops like rice, corn and cotton.”