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Research group led by former BCI student scholar promotes education and coexistence
By Lynn Davis
As on most workday mornings, Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz is up early. She suits up in a long-sleeve shirt and cargo pants—clothes that protect her from Malaysia’s intense sun, and also guard against swarms of jungle mosquitoes.
She packs her lunch, takes a quick sip of coffee, and checks the weather from her high-rise apartment in Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia. Looking out the window, she sees gleaming glass skyscrapers, domes, minarets of Malaysia’s dominant Muslim faith, upturned roofs of traditional Chinese structures, and European-styled buildings from the country’s colonial period. The city of nearly 8 million people wraps around rivers and stretches to nearby low mountains.
Malaysia—with its urban cities, rural small villages, tropical islands, and dense rainforests—is at the intersection of history and modern-day progress, at the crossroads of saving (or potentially losing) dozens of plant and animal species.
Dr. Sheema (in Malay culture, people use their first names rather than their last names) plays a significant role in Malaysia’s overall commitment to conservation, because saving bats helps save ecosystems and other species. She is president and co-founder of Rimba, a well-regarded nonprofit research group that works on multiple Malaysian conservation issues. Her focus is sustaining healthy populations of the large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) and the island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus). Both species are frugi-nectarivorous, which means they devour fruits and nectar, oftentimes leading to tragic conflict with the country’s fruit farmers.
The morning she is interviewed, Dr. Sheema loaded her dusty 1990s-era Land Cruiser with long telescopic poles, camera traps, mist netting, and video recorders to drive with her research team to a newly found secret location. There, they documented a small colony of large flying foxes, which roost in “an exciting new location.” Dr. Sheema says it is a place “that our team never predicted or could have imagined.”
The discovery of the unusual roost has been both exciting and perilous. If the location is disclosed, the colony could face carnage. In Southeast Asia, bats are shot down by fruit farmers who mistakenly believe bats damage their fruit crops. They’re also killed for bushmeat and medicinal purposes. They’re illegally hunted to be sold to restaurants that serve exotic foods, and they’re sometimes slaughtered simply for sport.
The life-changing ‘puffball’
In the early 2000s, Dr. Sheema worked as an archaeologist for the Malaysian government. Her work required considerable travel and taxing fieldwork, which Dr. Sheema thoroughly enjoyed. So, she reasoned, why not use her two-week vacation to try a different kind of fieldwork?
Dr. Sheema applied to Earthwatch Institute, an organization that connects volunteers with scientists. She received a fellowship to work with Dr. Tigga Kingston, an American-based bat researcher who is globally renowned for her work in the threatened rainforests of Southeast Asia and coordinator of the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit (SEABCRU).
For two weeks, Dr. Sheema and other volunteers helped Dr. Kingston capture bats and data as they painstakingly moved through the challenging terrain of the Krau Wildlife Reserve. The reserve, which bisects the interior of Peninsular Malaysia, is a pristine and unspoiled lowland tropical rainforest valued for its exceptional diversity of birds and mammals, and is strictly off-limits to anyone without a research permit. For Dr. Sheema, who had hiked only recreationally in the forests around Kuala Lumpur, the dense, swampy, and thorny landscape was nothing like anything she had experienced before. Difficult—yet exhilarating.
When Dr. Kingston’s research group brought bats from the forest to the field lab, Dr. Sheema held a bat for the first time. It was a small woolly bat (Kerivoula intermedia), a little-known species of vesper bat found only in Malaysia, and one of the smallest mammals on earth. It weighed less than two ounces.
Dr. Sheema says it was a life-changing moment. “There it was, in the palm of my hand, a tiny puffball weighing practically nothing, with its little eyes looking at me,” Dr. Sheema recounts. “I can’t fully describe the feeling. I was filled with awe and I was intensely aware of the bat’s fragility. I realized I needed to do more than save the past. I needed to do something to save the future.”
Dr. Sheema turned her passion to bat conservation, moving from her initial fascination with one of the smallest of insectivorous bats to becoming a foremost researcher and prominent advocate for some of the largest fruit-eating bats. She pursued a master’s degree and worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia.
In 2010, Dr. Sheema and her husband, Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements (a.k.a. Reuben), co-founded Rimba, which means “jungle” in the native language of Malay. Since then, she has launched important bat research and conservation initiatives, published prolifically, and traveled extensively. She also completed a doctorate in ecology, funded by Bat Conservation International and other bat-saving organizations.
The lay of the land
Malaysia—divided by the South China Sea into the regions of Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo—is the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by several countries and surrounded by small tropical islands. Multi-ethnic, multicultural, and endlessly diverse, the country has approximately 32 million residents, and scientists estimate it contains 1 in 5 of the world’s animal species. It is a picture-perfect paradise and a perfect storm for conflict between humans and nature.
Ten years ago, Malaysia stepped up its commitment to conserve natural resources and began to see a significant uptick in ecotourism. But conservation challenges persist, including deforestation and habitat loss due to logging, agricultural expansion, quarrying, and wildlife poaching and trafficking. Conservation organizations, like Rimba, are working to address these issues.
“There are many local and international organizations in Malaysia that focus on terrestrial mammals: tigers, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, sun bears, and orangutans,” Dr. Sheema says. “But no Malaysian-based group was specifically focused on bats. So, we jumped in. Our work conserving fruit bats will help save complete ecosystems, which, in turn, will help conserve the 110 bat species in Peninsular Malaysia, and many of those big iconic species.”
In Malaysia, there are dozens of bat species that range from short-nosed dog-faced fruit bats to small flat-headed bamboo bats. Dr. Sheema dedicated herself to conserving Malaysia’s two species of flying foxes after prior research on flying foxes mostly focused on viruses, parasites, diseases, and public health, rather than sustaining the mammals. Her work protecting fruit bats will have ecosystem-wide results.
Conflict with farmers
Small family-owned fruit farms, village orchards, and corporate fruit plantations border Peninsular Malaysia’s dense government-owned rainforests and tangled mangroves. This might be considered a good place for large flying foxes—except for fatal conflicts with humans.
Many farmers believe bats hurt their crops of bananas, mangos, water apples, rambutan, jackfruit, and durian. Farmers survey the morning remnants of partially eaten fruit and grimace at the durian blooms strewn on the orchard floor—though many of these blooms are naturally shed overnight. Some farmers respond with their shotguns, while others string fishing hooks and monofilament line to catch and kill.
Dr. Sheema’s doctoral research was the first to provide evidence that, rather than being destructive, flying foxes are vital pollinators for durian crops. Pungent, smelly, and considered a delicacy, durian is Malaysia’s most lucrative fruit crop. She seeks to educate farmers and others about bats’ important work.
“Most farmers understand bee pollination, but many don’t think of bats as pollinators,” Dr. Sheema says. “They too often see bats as destructive.” What they don’t realize, she says, is that fruit bats contort themselves to gently and tenderly drink the durian nectar, never damaging the durian blooms.
Dr. Sheema and her team travel to the fruit farms, sometimes dropping in and sometimes by appointment. They pull her Land Cruiser off Malaysia’s well-maintained roads and drive along dirt roads through the sloping orchards, bouncing along and grinding the manual transmission.
Some farmers are receptive to learning more about bat pollination and are interested in solutions to save their fruit. Others are more resistant. Her work isn’t restricted to mainland farms and forests, though. Sometimes, her work brings her to the country’s islands.
Quest for coexistence
On Tioman Island, one of 64 small islands off the west coast of Malaysia, Dr. Sheema and her team meet with dive and snorkeling centers, shops, hotels, restaurants, and the local villagers. The island, best known as the backdrop for the 1958 film “South Pacific,” has become an increasingly popular ecotourism and adventure travel destination. Dr. Sheema is on a mission to
persuade the locals that flying foxes could add even more tourism appeal.
There, where the brilliant blue sea meets white sand beaches ringed by dense tropical rainforests, roost hundreds of island flying foxes. They are visible in plain sight in the trees, along the walkways of the island’s few villages, and on the beaches.
Dr. Sheema points out that the island bats live unusually close to humans, a fact she believes could be attributed to the Islamic way of life, because Muslims do not eat bats. “The bats seem to know that they will not be hunted or eaten. They actually seem to want to hang out near humans.”
The feeling, however, is not necessarily mutual. Villagers consider the bats a nuisance because they’re stinky and noisy. Children in the villages use slingshots on them and adults try to smoke them out of their roosts, which seldom works.
So, Rimba tested a public outreach campaign. “We started small. We put up a hand-painted information sign near one of the roost sites, near a popular walking area, to provide some info about fruit bats and advise to not come close,” she says. They also produced posters and brochures, which they brought around to resorts and other tourism spots. “Those simple measures had significant results. We started hearing from the local people that tourists were asking to see the bats,” she says.
Dr. Sheema is encouraged by the people’s interest in the bats, and she is optimistic her team’s efforts will continue to help people and bats get along—for the good of the entire ecosystem.
“Through simple and basic outreach, we’re witnessing community recognition of the bats’ value and importance,” Dr. Sheema says. “Hopefully, that will build local pride in their resident bats. Yes, the bats are still smelly and noisy, but we hope that coexistence is on the horizon.”