Structure and Membership
Most of the networks exhibit substructure. In many cases, independent subgroups hold membership to the network. These are national Bat Conservation Programs (PCMs) in RELCOM, national conservation NGOs in BatLife Europe, range states in EUROBATS, local bat groups in BCT, and regional working groups in NABCA. Thematic structure is seen in some networks. SEABCRU is organized around four conservation priorities; the ABS has subcommittees addressing flying fox issues, outreach and education, and a small-grants program; EUROBATS has intersessional working groups, reporting on key conservation issues (15 currently); and RELCOM is implementing key strategies organized by subregion (e.g., Central and South America). Individual membership is varied, whereas some networks formed around a core of bat researchers in academic settings (SEABCRU, RELCOM), others have greater representation of members from NGOs (BatLife Europe), Statutory Nature Conservation Organizations/Agencies (SNCOs) and government departments (NABCA, EUROBATS), volunteer members of the public (BCT), or a combination (ABS, BCA). As networks mature, membership tends to diversify. The ABS was founded by bat researchers as a scientific society in 1992 (with an informal origin associated with a research newsletter launched in 1964), but now includes members from universities, government, other conservation societies, and private industry.
Challenges to Network Sustainability
By far the greatest challenge to network scope and sustainability is funding. Outside Europe, the networks do not have a paid staff or executive (with the exception of a small staff in CCINSA) and are run by volunteers. While volunteer origins and membership often confer network strength (Bodin and Crona 2009), time constraints can slow or limit responses to new challenges. Moreover, although several networks have a core of conservation researchers that remains relatively stable, as network activities can to some extent be integrated with their research agenda, there may be high turnover of volunteers involved with local activities (outreach programs, surveys etc.). Maintaining or rebuilding capacity because of volunteer turnover is a challenge, e.g., for PCMs within RELCOM.
Generally, it is a lot easier to attract funding for specific projects and programs than for staff or volunteer compensation, but these projects may be short term and tied to specific areas. Conservation solutions that require long-term monitoring with standardized methodologies (mandatory for statistical inference of success or failure of interventions) often lack “innovation appeal” to referees and funding organizations. Access to core or unrestricted funding which can be used for key strategic work, or to maintain basic network administration, is hard to secure. BCT has managed to grow its unrestricted income through donations, membership, legacies, and community fundraising, with some success, but this takes time and investment, and can be hard to maintain during periods of economic downturn. Ironically, while lack of protective legislation hampers conservation progress for some networks, protective legislation can lead to negative attitudes toward bats in other areas, particularly during recessions when protection of species can be seen as a barrier to economic growth. In addition, perceived “exaggerated” bat protection efforts can lead to reluctance among citizens to admit to the occurrence of bats in their property at all, for fear of losing partial control over their property.
In a social network, links between actors are almost entirely based on forms of communication, so mechanisms for communication (from face-to-face to online contact) are critical for the success of a network, particularly when members are geographically dispersed. All the bat conservation networks have a Web presence for interaction and/or issue newsletters, and many have regular face-to-face meetings, but gaps in communication can cause network stress, particular when node diversity is high (i.e., members come from many different backgrounds and perspectives). Effective communication is critical if network members differ in their position on a key issue. For example, tensions between the core actors in BCT and supporters and volunteers in 2006 over BCT's stance on a government study of rabies in bats generated very strong concerns (Racey et al. 2013). This led to a review and new model of working with volunteers (partner and network agreements, regular meetings and communication) which proved very beneficial.