A light rain began to fall upon Nakanacagi Village, though to no detriment of those below. The rain was, after all, a sign of blessings from the heavens. This was a day of celebrationthe culmination of many years of phone calls, meetings, emails, field research, data collection, late nights and early mornings. And all leading to this moment: the dedication of the Nakanacagi Bat Sanctuary.
In attendance was the much revered Tui Macuata (Paramount Chief) Ratu Wiliame Katonivere, who commended the village for its assistance in the conservation efforts. Along with the Paramount Chief, over 300 community members, village leaders, conservation partners and government officials attended the watershed moment of the sanctuarys dedication. It would be the Fijis first protected bat sanctuary, and all to protect the vital breeding and roosting habitat of 95 percent of the global Fijian free-tailed bat population.
[The ceremony] was a cultural dedication and then a spiritual dedication, and for us in Fiji, thats very important, says NatureFiji-MareqetiViti Director Nunia Thomas-Moko. It was culturally and traditionally declared as a sanctuary, and then there was a blessing ceremony over there by the pastor. Sometimes thats all we need, the blessings of the indigenous people, to open the pathways for us to be able to do conservation work in Fiji.
The pageantry and high spirits of the dedication ceremony by the Nakanacagi villagers, clans and provincial leaders were inspiring, says BCI Chief Conservation Officer Kevin Pierson, who attended the ceremony alongside partners from the Rainforest Trust, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and The National Trust of Fiji.
Beyond the festivities, however, was the tangible realization of the cooperative efforts to designate, purchase and protect Nakanacagi Cave and the surrounding 21-acres.
With the offerings of yaqona consumed, the Meke dances performed (one even inspired by the bats themselves) and the dedication ceremony concluded, the attendees then went to visit the stars of the showthe bats.
Bats of Paradise
Bats hold a special place in Fiji, so much so that when Fijian government approved a redesign of the countrys currency in 2011, a bat was selected to adorn the 10-cent cointhe Fijian monkey-faced bat to be exact.
This and five other species are found throughout the 333-island archipelago of this Pacific Island nation, representing the only endemic mammals to Fiji.
Life for these bats of paradise, however, is not without its challenges. In a country where the gross domestic product from forestry and agriculture outpaces even tourism, suitable habitat for these bats is coming under increasing pressure. Additional stress comes from cave disturbance, hunting and lack of comprehensive scientific information. Faced with these factors, it is little wonder that five of the six Fijian bat species face an increased risk of extinction. This includes the critically endangered Fijian monkey-faced bat (Mirimiri acrodonta), the endangered Fijian free-tailed bat (Chaerephon bregullae), the near-threatened Samoan Flying Fox (Pteropous samoensis nawainensis), the vulnerable Fijian blossom bat (Notopteris macdonaldi) and the endangered Pacific sheath-tailed bat (Emballonura semicaudata).
A Collaborative Effort
Formed in 2016, the Fijian Bat Conservation Initiative is a collaboration of organizations working to protect the threatened and endangered bat species of Fiji. Members of this initiative include Bat Conservation International, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, University of South Pacific, National Trust of Fiji, International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Wildlife Foundation of Fiji, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Birdlife International and Rainforest Trust.
The collaborative efforts of all partners have been critical to the success of the first step in this initiative to establish the Nakanacagi Bat Sanctuary, says Elizabeth Erasito, Director of The National Trust of Fiji.
The people of Nakanacagi Village, too, have been vital to the establishment of the sanctuary. Following the advice of conservationists, the villagers voted in 2012 to halt the traditional harvesting of the bats, and their continued involvement in the conservation efforts has proven essential, especially with their historical knowledge of the bats and the cave.
Through funding from Bat Conservation International and partners at the Rainforest Trust, the Fijian Bat Conservation Initiative will work with local government over the next five years to run education programs, train rangers for the sanctuary and ensure the continued protection of the cave habitat.
We believe in empowering the local community to know more about their own resources, says Thomas-Moko. We really hope that through the research and through the way the site is managed, we can develop field ecologists for Fiji and inspire children to realize what they have in their very own backyard is something special and that they have the power in their decision-making to destroy it or to save it.
An additional 30 acres of land will soon be added to the sanctuary, cementing the protection of the bats. Bat Conservation International is also working to further identify key roosting habitat for Fijis endangered and threatened species across the islands, as well as working with local stakeholders to develop sustainable conservation plans.
The bats at Nakanacagi Cave and the bat sanctuary is a platform for us to engage in the discussion around bats, says Thomas-Moko. Having the bat sanctuary, talking about the bats at a national level, and for the site to be recognized at an international level as a bat sanctuary, sends a message to communities and to the general public that bats are important and good.