Volume 36, Issue 2, 2017

Force Multiplier

When a group of BCI scientists and volunteers recently visited Fiji, they came equipped with more than enthusiasm


Bat flying in the sky
Part of the Fijian Bat Conservation Initiative team makes
the trek up to Nakanacagi Cave
Courtesy of Heather Kaaraka

Fiji’s beaches are legendary tourist destinations, and justifiably so; with sugar-sand beaches, crystalline water and lush greenery, the nation’s coasts abound in natural beauty.

But what most may not realize is that the islands’ rugged volcanic interiors, where few tourists stray during their tropical sojourns, are the real backbone of the country’s economy. Forestry and agriculture account for a greater share of the nation’s gross domestic product than even tourism. Covering around 50 percent of the nation’s landmass, trees in Fiji’s jungles and cloud forests are harvested for timber, and cleared for sugarcane plantations and mining operations.

As much as the thousands of plant, bird and insect species feel the impacts of these human activities, none may be more affected than Fiji’s six native species of land mammal—all bats. One species is found nowhere else in the world, and the majority are currently threatened or endangered.

Bat flying in the sky
BCI's Jason Corbett instructs NatureFiji-Mareqeti's Siteri Tokoca and Semi,
a local guide and farmer from Nakanacagi Village, in how to properly
operate radio telemetry equipment and track a radio-tagged bat.
Courtesy of Heather Kaaraka

BCI recently deployed a team of experts to assist one of Fiji’s only conservation non-profits, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, build on their work to craft a comprehensive, science-based plan for protecting bats on the islands. For the first time, the science team also included several BCI members who volunteered their bat-related technical expertise.

For BCI, involving members with specialized research or technical skills and a desire to volunteer those skills holds great potential for the impact of future, similar research missions.

“We have a lot of skilled people, both within and outside our membership, that we can draw on as volunteers to really up the ante with our conservation initiatives and projects around the world. The force multiplier effect is incredible,” said Jason Corbett, director, Subterranean Program for BCI.

The research trip is part of an ongoing initiative with partners including the National Trust of Fiji, Birdlife International and the University of the South Pacific.

In Fiji in January 2017, the crew of volunteers included Mike Warner and Emily Davis, professional cavers with decades of combined experience in mapping and charting caves; Jeff Huebschman, a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville; Heather Kaarakka, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and Paul Heady, an environmental consultant specializing in bat conservation.

Bat flying in the sky
Light sticks (very temporarily) are attached to the Fijian free-tailed bats.
Upon release, the bats can be visually followed while acoustic
calls are recorded to create the first library of identifying calls
for the species.
Courtesy of Heather Kaaraka
Bat flying in the sky
Glowing bat bags await the showy release
Courtesy of Mike Warner

Together with Winifred Frick, BCI senior director of Conservation Science, Dave Waldien, BCI’s past director of Global Conservation, and Corbett, the team targeted Nakanacagi Cave and its environs. Located on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu, the cave is the only known roost and maternity colony of Fijian free-tailed bats (Chaerephon bregullae) in the country.

Though the team focused primarily on the Fijian free-tailed bat on this visit, their work with local partners will ultimately play into species management plans for the free-tailed bat as well as the Fijian sheath-tailed bat (Emballonura semicaudata) and the Fijian monkey-faced bat (Mirimiri acrodonta).

Huebschmann and Kaarakka used their expertise in telemetry to help local partners learn how to use the equipment and conduct the radio tracking of bats. Difficult in the best of circumstances, the job was made even tougher by the steep terrain, lack of roads, patchy cell service and spotty radio communications.

They found, somewhat surprisingly, that the bats seemed to head mostly for the forested mountains above the cave instead of foraging in the sugarcane and rice fields below, which will help identify areas in need of greater protection.

And in the cave itself, Warner and Davis coped with challenges that included dodging resident white-rumped swiftlets, birds that share the cave with the bats, and noise from rushing water that drowned out speech, requiring researchers to constantly run back and forth to share measurements. Together with the biologists, the team discovered the presence of breeding males, indicating it was also a mating site for the bat species.

Though the practice has declined over the last decade, Nakanacagi’s bats have long been hunted by locals for food. Siteri Tikoca, endangered species program manager for NatureFiji, said that knowledge of mating and breeding habits is exactly the kind of critical information her organization needs in order to involve local communities in the bats’ conservation—they can’t approach those communities empty-handed.

The Fijian way is, if you come into my house, I won’t chase you out; I’ll listen to you,” Tikoca said. “So we encourage discussions and try to answer questions as best as we can. Awareness helps communicate what conservation really is, what protection is. And all of this new knowledge will help us mold our next moves.”

Bat flying in the sky
A Fijian free-tailed bat
Chaerephon bregullae
Courtesy of Heather Kaaraka

The close collaboration between the BCI scientists and skilled volunteers, Tikoca added, will be a boost to local partners’ efforts into the future. Though she and others are trained scientists, often what’s lacking to gather real data, and lots of it, is modern equipment and training in how to use it. The organization will continue telemetry work over the next year with antennas and receivers left behind for their use.

One common theme of the Fiji volunteers’ experience: delight in the chance for cross-cultural communication and collaboration, beyond being able to use their specialized skills outside of their usual scope.

“There is no getting around having a local perspective on their environment,” Huebschman said. “There was a fair bit of pride from the people at Nakanacagi Village, realizing people were coming from across the world to their cave, to work with their bats. They really embraced the significance of what they have there with that population in that cave.”

“Getting to be in the field, and seeing the real Fiji away from the resorts was everything we could have imagined, and more,” said Warner.

“We’re committed to working with our partners to analyze these data and think about how to incorporate it into conservation planning for the protection of the species,” said Frick. “It was a great expedition, but the work doesn’t end at the end of the trip—it’s just one piece of a larger vision and project.”

 

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