18th June 2024

Survey Officer Dr Parvathy Venugopal is a biodiversity scientist with a passion for conservation biology and community engagement. In this interview, we explore bat surveys: what they are, why we do them and how they benefit people and bats. Parvathy also reflects on removing barriers to participation and how a dual-cultural perspective informs her work.

Dr Parvathy Venugopal is a young South Asian woman dressed in a grey raincoat. We see her from the elbows up, as she turns her head to smile at the camera. Binoculars are raised to chin level. She stands in what looks like wetlands on the edge of an industrial site.

Dr Parvathy Venugopal (Photo-Dr Paul Bates)

You’re the Survey Officer for BCT’s world-leading citizen science programme the National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP). What do you do in that role?

NBMP runs various surveys every year, which are done by the public and bat workers in parks, woods, long waterways and urban spaces.

As the Survey Officer, I coordinate these surveys. I do things like send resource packs out to volunteers, recruit more volunteers, and take up more sites. Collection of survey data is also a big part of my role – it takes a lot of chasing!

Can anyone do a bat survey?

We like to think there’s a survey for everyone!

The Sunset Survey is beginner friendly, it is quick to do, and needs no experience or equipment. It doesn't require access to a garden either, it can be done from a window or in a local park [check out the video below for more on the Sunset Survey].

Another great survey is NightWatch, perfect for people living in cities or towns.

We also have our three core summer surveys, an autumn woodland survey and a winter hibernation survey. Our website is a great place to find out which survey is right for you.

Who would you like to see signing up to do surveys?

I'd love for people totally new to nature to join in!

Conservation has underserved some groups of people in the past, and Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) is committed to removing barriers to participation.

Of course, it benefits bat conservation the more people who do surveys - but it can also benefit people who get involved. Evidence shows that time in nature or with wildlife can help people's mental and physical health. And getting involved in citizen science can let people try out new skills. So, it is mutually benefitting!

What happens to the data from NBMP surveys?

Our data allows population trends to be tracked for 11 of the 17 breeding bat species found in the UK. For some we have more than two decades worth of data.

Specifically, that means we have information on bat population status, change and distribution. More simply, ‘population status’ is about whether bat populations are increasing, declining or remain stable. And ‘distribution’ looks at if species are expanding their range to new places or leaving places.

And survey data is all put together for the annual NBMP report?

Yes, every year we prepare the annual monitoring report, which goes to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee [a public body which advises central and devolved governments on conservation] and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [a ministerial department responsible for the environment].

Government and conservation bodies use our reports to inform evidence needs and address policy questions. Importantly, the reports are one of the measures used to assess government progress on halting biodiversity loss.

Your job also involves community engagement

Yes, a major chunk of my role is volunteer recruitment and support and that's why I'm interested in community engagement.

It's also where my cultural background plays a crucial role. Many people from other cultures I speak to are shocked we even have bats in the UK. So, for me, that's a starting point. If we work with those communities, awareness building is the key.

What kind of community engagement events have you put on?

A favourite of mine was an event we ran one of the Royal Parks with Bounce Bhangra. We had a fun-filled Bhangra dance session and then an exciting bat walk.

I came up with the idea for this event but having Stephanie (Volunteer Engagement Officer) was crucial, as she had the capacity to pull strings among our collaborators and arrange everything.

I’m also grateful to Mary Webber from the Royal Parks and Vikram and Manu from Bounce Bhangra. They all helped make this brilliant event happen.

Why did you combine bhangra with a bat walk?

People have got many problems in their lives. Even if they want to care for nature or contribute for nature, they might not have time. And it’s not everyone's cup of tea.

So, they might not be interested in bats, but they might be interested in dancing. If you combine these two things, you raise awareness.

Community science, surveys and bats: Parvathy Venugopal interview

People doing the Sunset Survey, a beginner friendly NBMP survey which requires no experience or equipment.

Is it useful for your work to have a dual cultural perspective?

It is useful. When I started at BCT in 2020, the NBMP had just started work on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). They focused on recruiting young and diverse volunteers.

As a person of colour, I bring different perspectives. For example, differences in attitudes about time in nature between India and the UK, which was a surprise to some colleagues.

Why do we need good representation for successful conservation?

Given the times that we live in, we need more people. Not just more people in general, but different ways of thinking which you get from a culturally diverse mix of people.

Why do you think conservation isn’t representative of the population of the UK?

Not many people from Asian backgrounds work in the environmental sector in the UK. Mainly because many jobs are underpaid. If you’re from an Asian country, it's still the thinking you go to jobs where you get well paid. So, kids never get exposed to careers like mine.

Whenever I go to my Asian family or friends here, they always ask about my job and my salary. When I tell them they’re shocked, they say ‘but you have a PhD. You could go to data science or things like that and earn more.’

What do you think is key to broadening involvement in conservation?

Awareness is the heart of involvement; it can make a huge difference in one's life. But the earlier you get exposed the better. That memory stays with you.

If you're young and you visit a bat roost site or see a video of a bat hunting in your science club, that might stick around somewhere in your brain. And it could come back when you grow up. That's what happened with me - I had bats in my school growing up. Although I didn’t like them back then!

You didn’t like bats as a kid? What changed?

After getting to know bats more through my studies, my attitude changed, which shows how important awareness is.

I went from disliking bats at school to working to conserve these amazing species!

Parvathy Venugopal sits at a desk covered in scientific tools, including a microscope and samples of bat skulls in plastic pots. Parvathy is a young South Asian woman with shoulder length black hair. She wears a teal coloured hoody. She looks down to a sample she holds in her hands.

Parvathy studying bat specimens at the Natural History Museum London. Credit Dr Paul Bates. - Dr Paul Bates

What is the impact if people don't see people like themselves in conservation roles?

Studies show that lack of representation has effects on what children think they can be. So, if kids go to a football match, they will probably see people from African countries there because most football teams have African players. Or if you watch cricket, you find a lot of Indian or Bangladeshi or Pakistani people there. They can easily feel like, oh, I belong there.

Whereas in the UK, people of colour or from lower socioeconomic groups don't see many people from their background working in the environment sector. So, they don't feel confident about being part of that.

We need to make people aware that if you don't want to become an engineer or study medicine, there is a path here in conservation.

How do you think we can help younger people imagine themselves in conservation roles?

If you plant a seed and the surrounding environment is favourable, it can grow. Research shows us this is true. So if you expose kids to multiple skills, then later in life when they want to pursue an interest they can go back to that memory and pick it up from there.

Of course, when you plant a seed, you’re not guaranteed a result. But that shouldn't stop you planting the seed, or caring for it as best you can, if it's a good seed.

And after all, the future is theirs, so the least we can do is gift kids this seed and try our hardest to give them a healthy environment to live in.

So, a broader perspective is important?

Overall, it is vital for conservation and the environmental movement to invest in young people and give them diverse experiences. It's going to be a long journey, so we might not achieve impressive results quickly. For me it’s important that people recognise this, and don’t give up when change doesn’t happen immediately.

My life experiences have shaped my attitude: yes, I’m focused on what can be done now but always in the context of where we are, how the past got us here, and what the future could look like.