Protecting one of the largest bats in the world, the golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus), will take more than just conserving its habitat; it will take changing attitudes and traditional practices.
To do this, BCI has partnered with two local organizations, the Mabuwaya Foundation and the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc., which in turn have collaborated with more than 20 other organizations to form the Filipinos for Flying Foxes Initiative. This initiative aims to help stabilize and recover the species through protection of roost sites and community outreach.
Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the golden-crowned flying fox is threatened not only by deforestation and fragmentation of its habitat, but also from hunting by local communities. Although illegal throughout the Philippines, hunting for sport, sale and personal consumption of these large flying foxes at their roost sites is the greatest threat to the species’ survival.
Many people who live close to bat roosting locations are often surprised to find out how vulnerable golden-crowned flying foxes are, says BCI Global Conservation Program Manager Chris Woodruff. When asked, people will sometimes say they assume there are hundreds of thousands of them in any given location, but scientists estimate that only about 10,000 individual bats of the species exist—an extreme decline from the numbers that were seen in the Philippines a century ago.
While the Filipinos for Flying Foxes Initiative has sought to train local leaders to protect some of the roost sites, education, Woodruff says, can play an even larger role in deterring hunting. “Understanding that different animals reproduce differently—bats aren’t like rabbits that may have 12 young per year and quickly overcome population declines—can be very powerful,” he adds.
To that end, the initiative is working with local communities to develop roost sanctuaries to not only to protect the golden-crowned flying fox from hunters, but also to use as educational tools and tourist attractions.
Well-known champion of Philippine wildlife Marites “Tess” Balbas has been working with the initiative to identify and protect roosts in many places, including the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park in Luzon. Her organization, the Mabuwaya Foundation, has been celebrated for its community-based work with crocodiles, and many thought the same approach could be used for protecting bats.
“We think it is important to tell people about the flying foxes because they can be the foresters of the future, as they spread seeds over great distances,” she says.
To date, the two-year-old program has been able to establish six sanctuary roost sites across the Philippines. The latest sanctuary, launched at Mambukal Mountain Resort in June, is the result of much discussion, education and training efforts with resort staff and management, as well as engagement with local leaders in the community. The resort is one of the top tourist destinations in the Negros Islands and hosts a colony of flying foxes, which include golden-crowned flying foxes, as well as large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) and island flying foxes (Pteropus hypomelanus), all of which are protected within this newly recognized sanctuary.
“This is the first formally declared bat sanctuary managed by a resort in the Philippines,” explains Lisa Paguntalan, Director of Field Operations at Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. “This initiative has raised the standards of how resorts can facilitate and help in biodiversity/bat conservation, and is one that can easily be replicated. This is, therefore, a very exciting development both for bat conservation as well for how private corporations can contribute to advancing conservation.”
Beyond education at roost sites, the initiative has been engaging younger generations with the bat conservation message. Working with school groups, local partners have been teaching children the importance of all bats to the forests through puppet shows and educational materials. The ability of BCI to partner with these groups that already have great relationships within local communities is key to the success of this initiative. BCI can bring a global perspective and international credibility to the table, but for long-term success the conservation effort needs to be locally based.
“We realize that the initiative cannot depend on BCI always investing money and having staff closely monitoring this project,” Woodruff says. “The idea is to empower and build up the local capacity to a point where local communities can take the lead on the initiative.”
To generate further in-country support for community action, BCI is engaging with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. With their support, it is hoped that a combined government and community-based effort can advance long-term conservation of the golden-crowned flying fox.