Ever since 1998, environmental organisation Pro Natura has promoted an animal of the year – animal in the widest sense, with two, four or six legs, or no legs at all.
A small bat, just five centimetres in length, with ears almost as long again, has been chosen as the 2012 animal of the year.
The brown long-eared bat, nicknamed in German “fliegende Hase”, or “flying hare”, lives in natural woodlands and is one of some 30 bat species in Switzerland.
Animals of the year have ranged from the common earthworm that everyone sees all the time, to the brown bear, of which only the occasional isolated individual has been spotted in Switzerland.
Small or large, common or rare, they have all been chosen to highlight one of Pro Natura’s campaigns: the promotion of national parks, the health of rivers, urban sprawl and - like this year’s choice - biodiversity.
Eagle and ant
Although the animals are closely connected with specific campaigns, the choice may not always be obvious.
That the golden eagle (2001) should be used to promote the need for a new national park is not surprising. Needing a hunting territory of about 100 square kilometres, it’s exactly the kind of animal that would benefit from a large protected area, where it would be safe from the farmers and hunters that almost exterminated it in the 20th century.
But the wood ant? That was the choice the following year for the same campaign.
“We discovered that the ant is the biggest biomass in the National Park, and we thought it would be interesting to have a really small animal that people usually just step over,” Sava Buncic, Head of Communications & Marketing at Pro Natura, explained.
While the first animals were familiar to everyone, at least by hearsay - beaver, lynx, golden eagle – over the years they have tended to get more specific.
In 2008, for example, it was the banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), a particular type of damselfly (similar to a dragonfly).
“Most people don’t know that there are very many different dragonflies, and that all of these dragonflies depend on a different habitat. This is a message we want to get across: that it’s very important that the habitats are diverse, because each of them has different needs,” said Buncic.
Even such a beautiful creature as the dragonfly has prejudices to combat. There is a widespread – but quite erroneous – belief that they sting. In German they even have such unfortunate nicknames as Satansbolzen (Satan’s spike) and Teufelsnadel (devil’s needle).
So far only one of the animals that Pro Natura has chosen has been truly controversial: the lynx (2000).
As a predator, the lynx has always been unpopular with both hunters and farmers. Pro Natura wanted to show the other side, while suggesting how sheep farmers could live with it – for example, by protecting the flocks with shepherds or dogs.
Anyone who went to the organisation’s website could follow the activities of a specific individual, Tito, who had been fitted with a transmitter.
But towards the end of the year he was killed. “That was really a disaster for all the fans we had on our website,” said Buncic.
“I think it changed a lot in the attitudes of politicians. They heard about it, journalists wrote about it. Maybe they went on our website as well. If you have an individual, and you see what it looks like, and you start to like it, it’s different from just talking about lynx in general.”
Pro Natura is not afraid of controversy. It knows there is often a problem in reconciling different interest groups – not least, town-dwelling nature lovers who think lynx and wolves should have a place in Switzerland, and farmers confronted with dead sheep.
But the earthworm, chosen in 2011 to highlight Pro Natura’s campaign against urban sprawl, would seem completely unobjectionable; most people know that it does invaluable work in keeping the soil light and fertile.
However the message about urban sprawl is “really complex”, Buncic said.
“I know that a lot of people are really afraid that Pro Natura wants to forbid them to build a house – which is not true. It depends where you want to build it.”
The best solution is to build more densely in already populated areas, Pro Natura believes.
Surveys conducted for Pro Natura have shown that people are aware of the problem. “But I think when it comes to yourself and your own little house, it’s very human that you should forget,” Buncic commented.
The worm presented special problems to Pro Natura of a completely different kind.
"It’s not a very attractive animal to many people, because it doesn’t have fur and big eyes,” Buncic admitted. They couldn’t even find an agency that already had suitable worm pictures, and had to commission some specially.
In general, striking pictures help Pro Natura to make its point. That, for example, is why the long-horned bee was chosen over any other wild bee to promote the biodiversity campaign in 2010: with feelers – the so-called “horns” - as long as its body it is unforgettable, even if few people had heard of it before.
After 15 years, journalists now wait eagerly to discover each new animal. They even start phoning Pro Natura in December to find out.
“It’s really difficult to keep it secret until January,” said Buncic.
But that has its up-side too. They can now highlight less familiar animals.
“At the beginning of the series that would have been difficult. No one would have written about an animal that nobody knows.”
Pro Natura was founded in 1909 as the Swiss League for Nature Protection.
It adopted its new name in 1997.
The original goal was to back the Swiss National Park, established in the Engadine valley in 1914.
It now has more than 100,000 members.
Its aims include:
Stopping the deterioration of natural habitats
Protecting the countryside from urban sprawl
Raising awareness of the environment and how to approach it
Every year it chooses an animal of the year to highlight one of its campaigns.
Members receive a mailing and a magazine devoted to it.
There is also a magazine for children, and Pro Natura works with schools to explain the animal and its habitat.
Animals of the Year
The animals chosen so far by Pro Natura are:
1999 European Tree Frog
2001 Golden Eagle
2002 Wood Ant
2003 Swallowtail butterfly
2004 European hare
2005 Sand lizard
2008 Banded demoiselle
2009 Brown bear
2010 Long horned bee
2012 Brown long-eared bat