Strengthening Existing Networks

From our review of characteristics of successful conservation networks (Sect. 17.3.2), existing networks might consider activities that increase the number and strength of links among its actors. This increases mean degree, with redundancy improving resilience to member loss (Folke et al. 2005), and greater connectivity facilitating knowledge transfer. Face-to-face events (conferences, workshops, etc.) as well as online social networks (e.g., Facebook) provide for bidirectional communication among actors and an increase in connectivity through establishment and strengthening of social bonds. Although online social ties are often weak (Burke et al. 2010), they may nevertheless cultivate and crystallize otherwise ephemeral relationships established face-to-face (Ellison et al. 2007; Lewis and West 2009).

While organizations may not be in the position to conduct a full social network analysis to guide explicit network weaving (as advocated by Prell et al. 2008, 2009), development can still be strategic. Identifying and connecting or developing “missing nodes” is an important aspect of network strengthening—are there individuals, themes, perspectives, knowledge, and countries missing from the network? Do actors exist but are not connected, or does the network need to encourage the development of new capacity?

Establishing connections to existing actors not currently in a network increases network diversity and hence adaptability, which in turn is central to maintaining social capital (Newman and Dale 2007). In Southeast Asia, Myanmar has had an active bat research community for at least a decade, but for political reasons it has been difficult to connect it to the rest of the SEABCRU, a situation that the SEABCRU has actively sought to rectify with a workshop in 2014, now that political landscape has changed. From a knowledge perspective, early in SEABCRU development it became clear that the network lacked expertise in disease ecology, despite the fact that Southeast Asia is an emerging disease hotspot (Jones et al. 2008), and actively recruited an actor from Ecohealth Alliance to fill that expertise gap. As a network grows, actors with specific management skills needed to run the network may need to be recruited. BCT actively headhunted to achieve a skill mix for the board of trustees that included strategy, organizational development, funding, marketing, legal, financial, HR, bat research, and conservation as well as volunteers perspectives.

In many cases, actors or nodes may not currently exist. Lack of expertise and capacity was one of the driving motivations behind the establishment of CCINSA, a network that has focused much of its efforts on training workshops. The role that this can play in establishing new nodes is illustrated by the growth of activities in Nepal, following a CCINSA workshop in 2007. Participants went on to establish two organizations involved in bat conservation—Small Mammal Conservation and Research Foundation (2009) and Natural Resources Research and Conservation Centre (2010). RELCOM began with representatives from five countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico) and grew network membership by actively recruiting key bat conservationists and researchers from across Latin America. In countries lacking expertise (e.g., in Central America), senior leaders from RELCOM actively built capacity through courses and workshops and identified local members needed to fill the gaps in region-wide representation. This approach grew RELCOM from five to 22 countries in just five years, and most of the remaining gaps are being filled by organizations actively petitioning to join.

The SEABCRU five-year plan allocated year three for the identification and filling of gaps in the SEABCRU network. In accord with the SEABCRU's thematic approach, gaps were defined as areas lacking expertise in, but facing, one or more of the four major threats. Activities center on fostering capacity to fill these gaps. These include a flying fox workshop in Cambodia (2013) to train biodiversity researchers in monitoring protocols, dietary studies, bat–farmer conflict resolution, and disease ecology, and a similar workshop focused on cave bat conservation in southern Vietnam (2014).

Filling in network gaps that lack existing actors can be challenging, and several networks have encountered difficulties, despite having identified clear targets. Efforts have generally been hampered by lack of funds to support foundational events (e.g., workshops), lack of suitable liaisons in the target area that can anchor events, and political constraints. Political constraints may be current (countries restricting international relations because of war or ideology), or historical. As an example of the latter, the majority of countries in Central and South America are now members of RELCOM, but the Guianas of northeastern South America have greater, recent European affiliations (comprising French Guiana, an overseas department of France), Guyana (British Guiana until independence in 1966), and Surinam (part of Dutch Guiana until 1975). These countries support high bat diversity, face similar conservation challenges to the rest of the continent, and lack local research capacity, but colonial and immigration history have limited their integration with Latin America, and hence with RELCOM.

Established networks should also work to develop links to other conservation stakeholders (Mills et al. 2014—scale-crossing to peripheral actors; Fig. 17.3e). Obvious “peripheral actors” include those engaged in similar issues (e.g., raptor fatalities at wind installations) or habitats (e.g., RAMSAR wetland groups). Perhaps, the most intuitive and common peripheral actors for bat conservation networks are cave groups. Cave groups have contributed to bat surveys from the Philippines to the USA. The Australian Speleological Federation played a major role in gathering bat knowledge in Australia in the late 1950s, and the legacy of this interaction is embodied in the ABS constitution, which seeks “to establish and maintain links, and work cooperatively, with other organizations within and outside Australia which share similar aims and objectives to the Society.” More recently, the ABS became part of the Places You Love alliance of more than 40 green groups in response to pressure to weaken Australian environmental laws and has increased interaction with other smaller bat conservation and wildlife rehabilitation groups in Australia. Similarly, BatLife Europe works with “collaborating organizations,” such as local NGOs, museums, and companies, to exchange information and participate in activities.

Networks should be cognizant that, as discussed above, the most effective network structure may change through time. As the network becomes more established and grows, knowledge and responsiveness can be enhanced by transitioning from a centralized structure (Fig. 17.3b) to one with greater modularity (Fig. 17.3d). RELCOM is actively transitioning to a more modular structure through the establishment of subregional groups (Central and South America), while maintaining the strong bonds already established. This structure allows the network to respond more effectively to the issues in each subregion. For example, Central America is in need of greater capacity building, as local PCMs are comprised of very young researchers, whereas expertise is more established in South America. The network is further subdividing South America into the Andes, Amazon, Southern Cone, and Caribbean to reflect the dominant conservation issues: wind turbines and habitat fragmentation in the Andes; habitat destruction in Amazonia; wind turbines in the Southern Cone; and bat migration and roost loss associated with hurricanes in the Caribbean.

As described above (Sect. 17.2.1), most of the bat conservation networks are already modular, comprising subgroups defined geographically or thematically.

Geographical subgroups are likely to be more cohesive initially (as actors within them know each other), but may tend toward homophily over time. In some cases, there may not be sufficient actors to make up a geographic subunit, as was the case with the SEABCRU at its foundation. Thematic groups promote functional diversity of the network as a whole, but it may take time for trust and strong bonds to develop within them. Ultimately, a mix of both is desirable, with members from geographical groups sitting on different thematic teams. This “jigsaw” strategy (Aronson and Patnoe 2011) promotes cooperative learning as expert knowledge developed in thematic groups is returned to the geographical groups. Currently, EUROBATS includes elements of this strategy with intersessional working group members drawn from member states. This strategy also ensures a variety of weak (bridging) and strong (bonding) ties among more actors, and explicit network weaving (Prell et al. 2008, 2009).

Network centrality is further decreased if the leadership structure transitions to a rotational one with elected officers serving for specified terms, as several of the networks do (e.g., RELCOM, ABS, BCA). Rotational leadership also avoids cliques and encourages different viewpoints. Conversely, failure to decentralize leaves the network vulnerable to loss of central actors, homophily, and poor longterm recruitment. Networks should also maintain ongoing recruitment programs to replace people, who leave, and maintain network heterogeneity (Newman and Dale 2007).

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