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Bats a big part of Fiji's natural heritage

Ana Madigibuli
Saturday, July 15, 2017

FIJI has six species of bats, of which five are threatened or critically endangered.

Out of the six species, Fiji has three species of fruit-bats, one nectarivorous and two species of microbats or small bats.

There are two common fruit bats (they eat ripe fruits in the forests and even in our own back-yard) that are also found in other Pacific Islands, while the third species is Fiji's own flying fox or Mirimiri bat that has only ever been captured from the high cloud forests of Taveuni.

The two micro-bats species feed on small insects, while the nectarivorous bat feeds on pollen, nectar and soft food. These three last species dwell in caves and overhangs.

NatureFiji-MareqetiViti conservation officer Siteri Tikoca said the organisation's greatest tool in protecting these species was evidence based research and awareness.

"We have profiles of these endangered species on our website and we have created, distributed colouring books, pamphlets, posters (in both Fijian and English) and invented games that tell the story about these endangered species, why they are special and the threat they face," Ms Tikoca said.

"We do school visits, community and village visits, present to the relevant provincial offices and conservation officers about these bats, their importance, habitats, and threats that they face.

"We involve forestry personnel, relevant conservation officers and locals from the communities to be guides and field assistants at the sites. This is a great way to build capacity within the local community and this way we help instill a sense of ownership and responsibility over their unique heritage."

She said these unique species were a crucial part of Fiji's natural heritage and it was people's responsibility to look after it.

"If we don't protect them who will? These endangered species provide important ecosystem roles and services like pollination, dispersal of seed and control insect populations. Without them, who will conduct these services? Certainly not us," she said.

"So much is still unknown about our bats and this includes data on population and change over time (before and now). We will need proper population studies to confirm this for all the six species.

"NatureFiji-MareqetiViti carried out a baseline population assessment for the endangered Fijian free tail bat in Nakanacagi, Dreketi in 2014. We do not have actual numbers for this species prior to this so there is no basis for comparison. Future studies for this species (Fijian free tail bat), will now be compared with that from 2014 as a starting point.

"Anecdotal observations and information gathered from the local communities tend to highlight a general decline in bat population over time."

She said community members and villagers were involved as part of the study team.

"This helps them learn more about bats and the threats to their survival. It is usually these local individuals that carry on the message within the communities and become champions of the conservation initiative. The proposed Nakanacagi Bat Sanctuary is a great example.

"Community members were trained about the importance of telemetry data and telemetry survey skills and they helped the local and international scientists collect vital telemetry data to help determine where these endangered and unique bats go to forage.

"The common flying foxes or fruit bats are the Samoan flying fox (widespread in Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa) and the Pacific flying foxes (widespread in Fiji and around the Pacific).

"Our two cave dwelling insectivorous bats are endangered and the Fijian free tail bat is known only from Vanuatu and Fiji.

"There is only one known roosting and nursing cave for this species in the world and that is in Nakanacagi, on Vanua Levu. The population and status of this species in Vanuatu is unknown."

She said the second cave dwelling microbat is the Pacific sheath tail bat which is critically endangered and is only found in small and fragmented populations in Fiji and the Pacific.

"This species used to be found in abundance in caves on Viti Levu in the past, but this is no longer the case today. This species is thought to be extirpated (locally extinct) from Viti Levu," she said.

"NatureFji-MareqetiViti and other partners including National Trust of Fiji, USP, Bat Conservation International, IUCN and Birdlife International are trying to secure two blocks of land above the only known roosting and nursing cave of the endangered Fijian free-tail bat in Nakanacagi, Vanua Levu.

"We also plan to work with the relevant stakeholders and customary land users to create a management plan that can be followed by all parties to help manage these fragile and important resources.

"This includes plans to train surrounding communities to become rangers and help us manage the area."

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