On the Island of Negros, one of the main Islands in the Philippines, we find a rare and fascinating bat: The Endangered Golden-crowned Flying Fox. Winner of the Terre Sauvage Nature Image Awards IUCN Bourse 2016 Jűrgen Freund, went to investigate.
In just a few minutes, twilight will swallow the day and the forest of Mambukal will become hidden in darkness. Posted close to a hot spring, photographer Jürgen Freund and his wife Stella wait patiently. For here, on this small island of Negros, they will soon become witness to one of the most fascinating spectacles that nature has to offer, the flight of the Flying Foxes.
In the surrounding trees, hundreds of bats can be seen perched on their branches. Hanging upside-down, cocooned inside their wings, they have spent all day resting. All of a sudden, as if woken by the call of the night, these trees and their strange fruit come to life.
“Being present when they take flight is a fabulous feeling," says the photographer. “There is an almost total silence when it happens; the only sound is the slight flapping of their wings. Such a contrast to the daytime when they are really noisy on their perches ...”
It is almost impossible to distinguish the various species participating in this enormous silent ballet. Yet in the midst of this confusion is one of the most threatened bats in the Philippines, the Golden-crowned Flying Fox (Acerodon jubatus). Weighing up to 1.2 kilos, this endemic species of the Philippine archipelago cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.
Also known as the "Philippine Flying Fox", the Golden-crowned Flying Fox mixes with the more densely populated colonies of the smaller Island Flying Foxes (Pteropus hypomelanus) and Little Golden-mantled Flying Foxes, and the similarly-sized Large Flying Foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) that can be found in the Mambukal Resort. These species are classified as Least Concern and Near Threatened respectively by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. However compared to the sheer size of the colonies found in Mambukal and elsewhere in the Philippines, the numbers of Acerodon jubatus are quite small.,
“Only 2-5% of the populations living in the two most protected sites, are from this Flying Fox species“ highlights Lisa Marie Paguntalan, Director of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (PBCFI), whose work includes not only the protection of bats, but also developing a greater knowledge and understanding of the species. “The total estimated population of this threatened species is less than 10,000; this is at least 100 times fewer bats than existed two hundred years ago.
It is no wonder that the Golden-crowned Flying Fox is now identified by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ as being Endangered and has been the focus of ongoing conservation work in the region including an SOS funded project implemented by Bat Conservation International between 2012 and 2014.
With their big eyes, long narrow rostrums and raised pointed ears: the facial features of these bats resemble those of a dog or a fox, hence the generic name of Flying Fox. They are considerably larger than the insectivorous bats of Europe and in some cases wingspans can measure more nearly two meters across. As frugivores, their diet consists of fruits, pollen and nectar. Flying Foxes are able to detect their food thanks to a very keen sense of smell and their large pupils which provide them with excellent night vision. Unlike insectivorous bats they do not use echolocation to navigate at night. However, their ears enable them to detect a wide range of sounds.
Essentially forest feeders, they each have their own favourite menu. Particularly fussy, the Golden-crowned Flying Fox feeds on the fruit of only a few select trees, like the Ficus that are found exclusively in primary forests or lightly exploited forests and mangroves. Being much more versatile, the smaller Island Flying Foxes and the Large Flying Fox also feed on flower nectar and pollen, as well as in the mangroves and agricultural plantations (including mango trees, coconut trees and kapok trees). In fact, the Island Flying Fox is known as being one of the main pollinators of the many mangrove and agricultural plantations in the region.
So too, Flying Foxes play a major role in the regeneration of forests and plantations, a largely unknown key role and hence the importance of environmental education to ensure that the local people develop a greater understanding of their role as pollinators and seed disseminators.
The site of Mambukal Resort, officially recognized as a sanctuary for bats since June 2015, has become one of the most exemplary sites in the Philippines. Here, protected, Flying Foxes can be easily observed. This is also the case on the small island of Suyac, located on the north coast of Negros, which is very conducive to eco-tourism. Here the bats have become an integral part of the mangrove ecosystem for tourists to discover.
Unfortunately across the rest of the country, the situation is far from optimal. "Although Flying Fox hunting is officially illegal in the Philippines, it is still going on everywhere," says Lisa Marie Paguntalan. There has been significant progress since the ban on international trade in 1995, but a few cases of exports remain. Flying Fox hunting is rooted in Filipino tradition and culture and so hunters continues to supply local markets with impunity. Bats are considered not only a delicacy, but also medicinal. As it is difficult to distinguish the different species, all fruit bats become victims of poaching. Disturbed at their resting sites, settlements are often forced to change location in order to escape the pressure of hunting.
A DISAPPEARING FOREST....
In addition to being rare, Golden-crowned Flying Foxes are particularly sensitive to poaching and other disturbances. Studies have shown that they are proportionally twelve times fewer in numbers in unprotected sites than in sanctuaries like Mambukal.
This Endangered species faces another major threat, deforestation. Dependent on primary forests and lightly exploited areas, it has suffered an unprecedented loss of habitat. More than 95 per cent of the original forest has disappeared in the Philippines and despite a moratorium, logging continues.
As Lisa Marie Paguntalan concludes, “There is still a lot to do for Flying Foxes, for example, put in place effective measures against hunting in dormitory and feeding sites or to respond to farmers' concerns about the bats that come to feed in their plantations.
To learn more about the Flying Fox project please visit the project profile here.