Volume 40
Issue 2

Amazon’s Indigenous territories may provide a vital safeguard for bats

by Lynn Davis

The Amazon rainforest provides habitat for hundreds of bat species.

In the Amazon rainforest, tropical ecologist Dr. Ricardo Rocha, a former Bat Conservation Interna­tional Student Scholar, finds himself up to his neck in water searching for bats, sloshing through ponds filled by the incessant downpours of the rainy season. Days in the Amazon are intensely hot. Nights, when he and his colleagues string mist nets to capture bat species, are full of wonder and mystery. His headlamp, he says, is his most important tool.

“In the rainforest, the light from the moon is completely obscured by the forest canopy, and the darkness is so thick you can’t see beyond your headlamp,” he says. “You start thinking about what’s around you and what you might encounter. Might there be a caiman lurking in the water? Might you reach into the darkness to steady yourself and find your hand on a dangerous snake?”

The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and home to millions of species of plants, birds, insects, and mam­mals, including the world’s largest, most diverse assemblage of bats. With its sheer size and thick, leafy vegetation, the rainforest stores massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps lessen the worldwide impacts of climate change.

However, the Amazon rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, with human development, logging, agriculture, and fire threatening its delicate ecological balance. Dr. Enrico Bernard, President of the Brazilian Bat Research Soci­ety (Sociedade Brasileira para o Estudo de Quirópteros), says the Brazilian rainforest has suffered a staggering 27% loss.

The Gnome Fruit-eating Bat
(Dermanura gnoma) is one of hundreds of bat species that live in the Amazon.

But Indigenous territories—large tracts of lands granted by legislation to Indigenous groups following arduous study and review—may help save at least some of the Amazon. Dr. Rocha and his colleagues, including Dr. Adrià López-Baucells and Dr. Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, have documented considerable overlap between the distribution of numerous Amazonian bat species and the land area covered by Indigenous territories. Dr. Rocha and colleagues recently published a study in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation highlighting the role of Indigenous territories in protecting bat diversity in the Amazon.

Their research suggests that Amazonian Indigenous peoples may be key to saving the world’s most important rainforest. According to a recently released report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Indigenous groups physically occupy an estimated 585.6 million acres of land in the Amazon Basin.

Using geospatial data, Dr. Rocha and his colleagues analyzed the distribution of bat species to see how they correlated with Indigenous territories. They found the territories were important for many different bat species. Their research found 22 species of bats used Amazonian Indigenous territories for more than a quarter of their global range. Some territories were home to more than half of the species known to live in the Amazon.

Tambopata National Reserve, in the southeastern region of Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon.

However, these tracts of land—important to both humans and bats—are facing a number of threats. “Current sociopolitical trends across the entire Amazon have put Indigenous communities under assault,” Dr. Rocha says. “Many territories are under pressure to being opened up to mining, agro-business, logging, infrastructure development, and oil and gas operations. Can we find ways to collaborate and establish common ground with Indigenous communities in protecting bat species? We think so, and are committed to helping remote forest communities sustain their homes and their environment from development and resource extraction.”

He points out how vital the Amazon is for humans, wildlife, plants, and the world as a whole. “With so many Indigenous groups and more recorded species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial biome on the planet, the Amazon is a global hot spot of both cultural and biological diversity,” Dr. Rocha says.