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Furry flying friends

May 7, 2020

Bats have long had a bad reputation. Popular culture–think vampire movies and Halloween decorations–links these nocturnal flying mammals to all things spooky. More recently, they have been suspected of being a host of the virus that causes COVID-19. But bats help humans far more than they hurt them–and actually help fight the spread of lethal diseases.

Most bats are prodigious insect-hunters, capable of consuming enormous numbers of moths, flies, and mosquitoes. Evidence suggests that one bat may be able to eat hundreds of mosquitoes in a single night. And they eat the types of mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus, zika, malaria, and other deadly pathogens. In some areas where bat populations have collapsed, the number of mosquitoes has exploded, along with rates of the diseases they carry.

Bats also provide huge economic benefits. In addition to controlling agricultural pests, they produce guano, which is used to make fertilizer. Chemical analysis of bat guano also provides historical climate data.

About a quarter of the world’s some 1,300 bat species are found only on islands. Like other island animals, island bat species face a disproportionate risk of extinction from habitat loss or other threats. Seacology works with island communities to protect these bats around the world.

Above and below ground in East Africa

The Kiwengwa Indegenous Forest on Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar, grows over the remains of an ancient coral reef, and several bat species live in once-submerged limestone caves. The growing human population in the area has led to increased illegal logging and more settlements, placing this sensitive ecosystem at risk.

In 2018, Seacology began a partnership with the Tanzania Association of Foresters and several local communities. The villagers are helping to enforce rules to protect the forest, and we funded a training and business center. There, local women are learning sustainable skills like beekeeping and soapmaking, and are selling their products. Signs now mark the borders of the protected area, and squatters who had lived in the protected area have moved on, allowing the dense foliage to begin to grow back.

Another success story in Tanzania took place on Pemba Island. There, we focused on the endemic Pemba “flying fox.” These large, fruit-eating bats, which roost in trees, were under severe pressure from hunting and deforestation. Fewer than 3,600 bats were left in the 1990s. The community agreed to protect the bats, and we funded the development of trails and other ecotourism infrastructure, along with improvements to a community water supply system. The bat population has been steadily recovering, with the most recent survey counting nearly 30,000.

The caves beneath Kiwengwa indigenous forest are home to many bats.

Populations of the Pemba Flying Fox have recovered thanks in part to Seacology's project. ©Marcel Oosterwijk

The bats and the bees?

If you think about a flower being pollinated, you probably think of bees. (We love bees, too! You can help us save the green carpenter bee on Kangaroo Island.) But many bat species also play a critical role in circulating pollen. The droppings of fruit-eating bats often also contain seeds, which helps propagate plants and trees.

One such species is the grey-headed flying fox, a vulnerable large bat that eats nectar and fruit. In 2000, Seacology funded a project with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia, to develop educational materials about the flying fox. While their numbers in the country are still declining overall, the effort to preserve the bats in the park was actually too successful–the bat population grew to the point that it was overwhelming critically endangered trees. The bats were moved to other areas of the country, where their populations were struggling.

New light and creatures of the night

Our project on Sibuyan Island in the Philippines is a classic example of the Seacology model: We provided infrastructure for an island community, and the community is protecting a threatened ecosystem. Seacology funded solar-powered lighting for more than 100 households in the remote community of Sitio Layag. The villagers agreed to protect a sprawling 2,471-acre plot of forest, nearly a quarter of the island’s remaining tree cover.

Among the many animals in the forest are the tiny, endangered Philippine tube-nosed fruit bat, found only on Sibuyan and two other islands, and the little golden-mantled flying fox, found only in the Philippines and on one island in Indonesia.

The grey-headed flying fox feeds on fruit and nectar in Australia.

Seacology funded more than 100 solar lighting units in the Philippines, in exchange for the protection of thousands of acres of bat habitat.