Responsible “Speo Tourism” in Romania
Centre for Bat Research and Conservation
Region & country
Despite the fact that speleology is not one of the most popular outdoor sports, its practice is deeply rooted in several European countries such as Romania. “Speo Tourism” refers to all touristic activities carried out in caves. As all other touristic activities, the fact that it can have an impact on biodiversity has led to the realization of projects like the one described here, to protect the life of certain species, in this case, bats.
Caving expeditions can be due to different underground activities, so in this article when mentioning ”cavers” we can refer to all kinds of explorations (discovery, documentation, trade, research, rescue…) but we will pay special attention to the group that carries out the activity in a sports environment.
Cavers are the most frequent visitors in the underground environment, a place which is also home to large bat colonies. Long term bat conservation cannot neglect the needs of cavers, and the importance of their involvement.
In 2017, our organization initiated the involvement of Romanian cavers in bat surveys and monitoring. In 2018 we secured funding from the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for a project, which aimed at strengthening bat conservation efforts in south-western Romania through the training and active involvement of cavers.
The main activities were to
- (1) organize workshops about bats for cavers,
- (2) undertake joint fieldwork to apply new knowledge and to find new colonies,
- (3) create durable, pocket sized bat ID key for cavers
- (4) and create plan for long-term collaboration between cavers and bat researchers.
Our results speak for the success of the project and the benefits of knowledge co-production: 20 caver colleagues from 7 different caver clubs participated in our activities, we organized 84 visits in 70 different underground locations, discovering 11 new colonies, of which six are of continental size and importance.
In the future, we will continue to work closely with cavers from Romania, in order to enhance the long term conservation of bats and to spread the use of the principles of responsible speo-tourism.
Responsible speotourism in Romania
Background of the project
Romania has multiple legislation regarding the protection of bats, including legislation based on European level guidelines and directives.
However, the application is weak and continentally important bat colonies in caves are not fully protected: over 50% of the most important bat caves have no active bat conservation measures.
In the 2010-13 period, through a LIFE+ project, several key caves in North-Western Romania received bat-friendly closing, thereby securing the protection of resident bat colonies. However, the Romanian caver community reacted negatively to these closings and especially because, based on legislation, seasonal restrictions were implemented (ex. no access in some caves during the critical hibernation / winter period).
Since then, the relationship between the caver community and the bat research community has deteriorated, cavers feeling that their activity is hindered by these seasonal restrictions and cave closings.
Since cavers are the most regular visitors in the underground environment, their attitude towards bats and bat conservation is vital. However, the large majority of Romanian cavers is (1) unable to identify bat species, (2) unable to estimate the size of bat colonies, and (3) unaware of the effects they could have on bat colonies (ex. noise, light, even heat from sweaty clothes).
In this context, even if they are inclined to, they cannot aid bat conservation efforts in an efficient manner. In addition, several cavers we personally know expressed interest in learning in detail about bats and bat conservation.
Solution and actions taken
We knew that involving cavers into bat conservation needs at least a minimal amount of funding. Even if we planned joint field trips with cavers personally, we needed to allocate specific funding to this objective.
We searched for adequate funding and applied to the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium (Ohio-USA) and got 5.000 USD for the project “Enhancing conservation efforts in the bat diversity hotspot of South-Western Romania”, implemented between 2018-19 in collaboration with Myotis Bat Conservation Group.
The main objective of the project was to strengthen bat conservation efforts in south-western Romania through the training and active involvement of cavers.
The main target group of the project were cavers and caver clubs with current activity in the karst regions of Caraş-Severin, Mehedinţi and Gorj counties. We chose this South-Western region of Romania because it is a biodiversity hotspot, wich is home to several continentally important bat colonies.
Other institutions or parties involved
After realizing the need to involve cavers in bat conservation, we involved firstly those cavers and caver clubs with whom we had already personal contact, or some joint fieldwork (ex. Cluj-Napoca Amateur Cavers Club).
During the project, we invited the whole Romanian caver community to participate. We made direct contact with additional caver clubs (ex. SpeoCristal Oradea, Prusik Timișoara, Speo-Alpin MH), which expressed interest in joint fieldwork activities and learning about bats.
The project activities were initiated through a workshop on the identification of bat species, a 3-day event where 15 caver colleagues participated, representing 6 caver clubs, 4 protected areas and a nature conservation organization. Participants obtained information about:
- identifying typical bat species of the cave environment,
- about estimating the size of bat colonies,
- as well as about aspects related to durable conservation of bats.
An essential component of the project were field trips with mixed teams, composed of bat researchers and cavers (chiro-speo teams). The focus was on caves and other underground locations, where a bat assessment had not yet taken place. These trips took place in the main seasons of the bat life cycle, meaning in winter (during the hibernation period), in summer (during the nursery period), and in autumn (during the mating period).
In total, there were 84 separate actions (ie 84 underground visits), carried out in 70 different underground locations (caves, potholes, abandoned mine galleries). Of these, 47 locations were evaluated for bats for the first time. During field trips in Caraș-Severin, Mehedinți, Gorj, Hunedoara, Cluj and Bihor counties, the mixed chiro-speo teams observed 19 species out of the 32 present in Romania and discovered 11 new colonies. Of these 11 colonies, six are of continental size and importance, with hundreds and thousands of bats from several strictly protected species.
Because cavers are the ones spending the longest time underground, they need to have a simple tool at their disposal, so they can easily identify bat species and estimate colony sizes. The project offered them this tool, in the form of a durable, indestructible ID key, with information about the most common species in caves. This ID key, elaborated in three languages (Romanian, Hungarian and English) has already reached over 10 caver clubs across the country.
In the end, the project directly involved over 20 caver colleagues from 7 different caver clubs. We also established official and focused partnerships with several caver clubs. The scientific results obtained throughout the project have already been presented at several conferences and congresses in the country and abroad.
The main problems we faced was the reticence of cavers towards bat conservation, and their distrust towards bat researchers, in light of past events.
We overcame these difficulties by being open about our intentions, and by assuring cavers that results will be presented / published in a joint manner. This became a reality when we presented our achievements (ie. the discovery of new, highly important colonies for science) at the National Caver Conference (Romania, 2019) and at the Karst Protection Symposium (Serbia, 2019), the authors of these presentations being both cavers and bat researchers (also mentioning the name & logo of the caves clubs).
The main lessons learned along the way are both related to the caver community. First of all, it became clear that it is possible for cavers and bat researchers to jointly work towards a shared goal and for the benefit of bats.
We discovered new colonies of continental importance, and several caver clubs now possess good information about proper bat conservation methods. Secondly, we realized that we will never convince the caver community in its entirety (ie. not everyone will embrace bat conservation). However, it is enough if we plant the seed of bat conservation within some members of the caver community, and some of distinct caver clubs across Romania.
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