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Counting the cost of habitat loss - biggest ever survey of one of the world’s most endangered bats gets underway

Counting batsA major new effort is underway to survey one of the world’s most endangered bat species on the brink of extinction.

Field biologists and researchers from Bristol Zoo Gardens and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Durrell) have joined forces to monitor the roost sites of Livingstone’s fruit bats as it is feared that the rapid clearance of the bats’ forest habitat is increasing the chances of the species being lost forever.

There are thought to be less than 1,000 of these giant, red-eyed bats left in the wild on their native islands of Anjouan and Moheli – in the Comoros archipelago, off the south-east coast of Africa.

Now the teams are carrying out the most thorough count of the species ever done, in a bid to assess the current population status and identify threats to the species’ survival.

With help from local experts, the teams will traverse the bats’ entire range, scaling mountains and travelling to the most inaccessible areas of the islands, to count bats in all their known treetop roost sites.

The two organisations are partners in a conservation project working with local communities to protect the forest areas which are vital to the bats’ survival.

Neil Maddison, Head of Conservation Programmes at Bristol Zoo Gardens, explains the importance of monitoring the bats in the wild: “These surveys are key to conserving these magnificent bats, and while they have been done some years ago, they have never been done with this level of intensity.”

He added: “The last survey of Livingstone’s fruit bat was carried out in 2005 by a local organisation, producing an estimate of 1,200 individuals. With on-going pressure on roost sites, the species was placed on the IUCN’s red list as ‘Endangered’. The current survey will visit all known sites throughout the species’ range to produce a comprehensive and up-to-date estimate, and to identify trends in the population.”

Field ecologist, Bronwen Daniel, from Durrell, who is leading the mission, said: “The bats gather in communal roosts in large trees, choosing the most inaccessible sites on steep slopes as they don’t like disturbance. This makes surveying them a real challenge. Yet even at the most remote roosts we often find crops planted underneath the trees; there’s so much pressure for agricultural land that farmers will even cultivate in places where it’s so steep that they have to rope banana plants to the slopes to stop them falling away!”

Fruit bats have an important and dynamic role in the regeneration of tropical forests as they disperse the seeds from the fruit they are eating. Livingstone’s fruit bats are therefore understood to be vital to the health of the forest.

The forest home of Livingstone’s fruit bat is suffering from the fastest rate of deforestation in the world - almost double that of any other country. Over 80 per cent of the islands’ human population is dependent on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods, so with the population growing rapidly, there is constant pressure for new fields in the forest.

Livinstones bat in flightThis situation is made worse by farming techniques that are poorly adapted to farming steep slopes where soils are easily eroded and lose their nutrients. As farmers move up the slopes to create new fields, they open the way for large, old trees to be felled for use in construction.

Conservation efforts aiming to tackle the root causes of deforestation as part of the ‘Engagement Communautaire pour le Développement Durable’ (ECDD) project have so far enabled over 1,000 farmers to improve their agricultural production in lowland fields in order to reduce pressure for new land in forest areas.

Hugh Doulton, ECDD Project Coordinator said: “The human population of Anjouan and Mohéli are just as dependent on remaining forest as the fruit bats and other native species: 30 years ago there were 50 permanent rivers on Anjouan; now, due to accelerating deforestation there are only 10. The islands are at real risk of ecological collapse and the future looks bleak if the trajectory is not reversed.”

He added: “At the same time as working to improve farming practices we are also helping local people to take collective decisions about using their land more sustainably and protecting their forests, water resources and biodiversity. The fruit bats are incredibly important in their own right as they promote forest regeneration, but they are also a powerful symbol for the state of the Comoros’ forests.”

Bristol Zoo Gardens, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Chester Zoo are the only UK establishments which keep Livingstone’s fruit bats in captivity. The organisations have collections of 13, 42 and three animals respectively, as part of a European conservation breeding programme for the species.

Follow the progress of the survey teams as they monitor the remaining roost sites by visiting: www.ecddcomoros.org. You can also follow the project on Twitter @ECDDComoros or via Facebook: www.facebook.com/ECDDComoros.

ENDS

For press enquiries please contact:

Lucy King, T: 0117 974 7306, E:lking@bristolzoo.org.uk

Hannah Worrall, T: 0117 974 7309, E:hworrall@bristolzoo.org.uk

Kelly Barker T: 01534 860081 E: kelly.barker@durrell.org

Suzanne Le Lay T: 01534 867743 E: Suzanne@suzannelelay.com

Notes to editors

Livingstone’s fruit bat

·         Livingstone’s fruit bats have a wingspan of about 140 cm, yet weigh only 700 grams.

·         Fruit bats are sometimes called flying foxes, due to their dog-like muzzles and the soft, thick and often reddish fur that covers their head and bodies.

·         The bat has a 1.4 metre wingspan making it the third largest bat in the world.

·         Livingstone’s fruit bat is named after Dr Livingstone, the 19th century explorer, who shot a large black bat during a brief visit to the islands in 1863 and sent it back to Britain where it was identified as an endemic species.

·         For more information visit: http://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/livingstones-fruit-batand  http://www.durrell.org/animals/mammals/livingstones-fruit-bat/

Comoro Islands

·         The Comoro archipelago comprises four volcanic islands in the Mozambique Channel between the northern tip of Madagascar and the coast of East Africa. Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan make up the Union of the Comoros, while the fourth island, Mayotte remains administered by France as a Département d’Outre Mer.

·         The Comoros is the fourth smallest African state with a population of 676 000, but it has an extremely high population density for a mainly rural population. Average population density in Anjouan is 446 per km², double that of the UK. The population is growing at 2.6% per year, meaning it will have doubled in around 25 years. 

·         The FAO estimates that between the years 2000 and 2010 the Comoros saw the fastest rate of deforestation in the world.

·         For more information visit www.ecddcomoros.org/comoros

Bristol Zoo Gardens

·         Bristol Zoo Gardens is a conservation and education charity and relies on income from visitors and supporters to continue its important work in the zoo, but also its vital conservation and research projects spanning five continents. 

·         Bristol Zoo is involved with more than 100 co-ordinated breeding programmes for threatened wildlife species. 

·         It employs over 150 full and part-time staff to care for the animals and run a successful visitor attraction to support its conservation and education work. 

·         Bristol Zoo supports – through finance and skill sharing - 15 projects in the UK and abroad that conserveand protectsome of the world’s most endangered species.

·         Bristol Zoo’s work in the field is carried out through the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (BCSF), which has been working to protect the forests on the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli since 2005.

·         For more information about BCSF’s project work in the Comoros, visit the website http://www.bcsf.org.uk/bcsf/comoro-islands.

·         In 2011 Bristol Zoo celebrated its 175th birthday. Over that past 175 years, the Zoo has brought six generations of Bristolians closer to wildlife, helped save over 175 species from extinction, established over 30 field conservation and research programmes all over the world, showed 40 million school-aged children the wonder of nature and given more than 90 million visitors a wonderful day out.

·         In 2010 Bristol Zoo Gardens set up a Conservation Fund to raise vital funds to help care for threatened animals and plants – both in the Zoo and through the conservation work we do in the UK and around the world.

·         Bristol Zoo Gardens is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. BIAZA represents more than 90 member collections and promotes the values of good zoos and aquariums.

The Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation

·         Bristol Zoo’s conservation work is carried out through the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (BCSF), which is based at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

·         BCSF carries out conservation and research programmes to support wildlife conservation – both in the UK and across the world - as well as research projects at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

·         It aims to focus on the underlying causes of threats to species and ecosystems, rather than the symptoms.

·         It also aims to empower other people, often those in disadvantaged communities, to identify and mitigate the environmental issues that threaten species, their habitats and sustainable development.

·         BCSF’s public presence in Bristol Zoo Gardens enables it to engage actively with the public, to share knowledge, elicit support and drive change in conservation behaviour.

·         Field conservation projects run by BCSF include Père David deer in China; Livingstone’s fruit bats in the Union of the Comoros; primates of Colombia; partula snails of French Polynesia; South African penguins; lemurs of Madagascar; primates of Cameroon; tortoises and terrapins of Vietnam; the Avon Gorge & Downs Wildlife Project; native invertebrates and rare plant reintroductions in Somerset and white-clawed crayfish in south west England.        

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

·         Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an international charity working globally to save species from extinction. Headquartered in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, Durrell focuses on the most threatened species in the most threatened places.

·         Durrell’s philosophy emphasises the need for our three core conservation pillars to work together: a wildlife park in Jersey as a centre of animal husbandry and knowledge, dedicated conservation programmes in the field and an International Training Centre to build conservation capacity. Durrell’s belief is that lasting and effective wildlife conservation can be achieved where these three components are in harmony.

·         The islands of Madagascar and the Comoros are central to the organisation’s conservation strategy and Durrell has been involved with conservation in the region for over 25 years.

·         To find out more visit: http://www.durrell.org/livingstones

Engagement Communautaire pour le Développement Durable

·         The project "Engagement Communautaire pour le Développement Durable" is an initiative run as a partnership between BCSF, Durrell, Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontières and the Government of the Union of the Comoros, alongside a range of local partners.

·         The project is working with communities to protect natural resources and remaining forest for the benefit of people and wildlife.

·         Principal funding for the project is from the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and the Agence Française de Développement.

·         For more information visit: www.ecddcomoros.org