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Friday, 11th December 2020

Ruling the roost-site: bat conservation in Sainte Luce

By Kat Strang & Eve Englefield

Pteropus rufus, or the Madagascar flying fox, is a large fruit-eating bat found only in Madagascar. However, its populations have declined due to habitat destruction and the hunting of individuals. Volunteers and visitors to Sainte Luce, our main conservation field site, have been lucky enough to be able to see these bats, with a roost established in one of the forest fragments. However, without some emergency support, the future of this roost is under threat.

Pteropus rufus bats in Sainte Luce, Madagascar

Over the past few years, SEED has worked with local authorities to protect the area of forest that these megabats occupy. In 2016, a community exclusion zone was set up around the roost site where the hunting of bats and felling of trees was forbidden. This was to protect both the roost and the forest around the roost as the bats are very prone to disturbance. Any logging within the vicinity of the roost can lead to them abandoning their roost site.

Since Phase I of Project Rufus, SEED has been working to ratify the exclusion zone within the forest fragment so that there is formal protection of the roost site. During Phase I, SEED also supported local community forest patrols so that any breaches within the area were recorded and fines could be enforced. However, ratification is a slow process, and with funding for the next phase of the project yet to be found, support to the patrols has had to stop. The presence of SEED staff visiting the roost, as well as the teams that patrol the forest, has previously deterred people from logging within the exclusion zone. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressure on already limited forest resources for the nearby communities, as food prices have risen, and income opportunities have disappeared. In addition, our field team are no longer visiting the roost as frequently due to reduced field trips, and so the area has not been able to be as well protected as we had hoped.

 Felled tree at the roost site

The field team returned to the roost in October to conduct our regular bat counts to estimate the size of the colony (usually around 300 bats from previous counts). However, they were surprised to see only a handful of bats. The cause was quickly identified; approximately 10 meters away from the roost a large tree had been felled and shaped into timber. This would have caused a very high level of disturbance at such a close range, causing the colony to temporarily leave the roost and move outside of the exclusion zone. It is exactly what we feared as this makes them even more vulnerable to habitat disturbance and hunting, and once again highlighted how important it is to reduce the amount of disturbance close to the roost.

The team acted quickly and met with the local Mayor, who is very supportive of the bat conservation work. It was agreed that an Enforcement Committee should be established to strengthen the local law by ratifying it, and therefore reduce the likelihood of further illegal activities occurring. Alongside this, one of SEED’s supporters kindly funded a small emergency grant to set up this Committee and support patrols in the exclusion zone for five months. This allows us to keep the bats safe from further potential disturbance, and closely monitor them as they return to the roost. 

The work with the Committee is due to start next week with the team currently out in the field completing bat counts. The news is good! The bats have been spotted flying near the normal roost site, suggesting that they may be roosting close by and will hopefully return to the safety of the exclusion zone in the near future.

Thanks to one of our supporters, we were able to act quickly and put a short emergency plan in place. However this incident has highlighted the importance of protecting the roost site, and ensuring the local laws are enforced. With the support of the Mayor and the local forest patrol team, we will work with the local communities to emphasise how vital it is to protect the roosts in order to secure the long term survival of the bats in Sainte Luce.

If you are able to support this conservation work through a donation, then we will be able to continue to protect this important bat species.