You can hear them long before you see them. And those with good noses can smell them, too. I'm talking about the 8 to 10 million straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) that migrate through Kasanka National Park in northern Zambia each fall in one of the world's largest mammal migrations. These beautiful bats, with the largest wingspan of any African species, stop in Kasanka for several weeks each year to roost and forage in the "mushitu," or evergreen swamp forest.
Four BCI Conservation Leader Circle members and I visited Kasanka National Park this past fall as part of an exciting BCI trip to southern Africa. We were amazed by the beauty and sheer magnitude of the bats of Kasanka. Watching them emerge each evening to forage, then return to the trees in the early (early!) morning, was a spectacular experience.
During the 1970s and '80s, Zambian wildlife suffered greatly from heavy poaching, intense bushfires and cultivation of lands. The once-numerous black rhinoceros completely disappeared. Kasanka National Park was not spared. Fortunately, interested parties established the Kasanka Trust, a charitable organization based in Zambia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which administers the park – the first national park in Zambia to be privately managed. The park and its large mammals have shown an incredible recovery over the years, but the straw-colored fruit bats are the star attraction of this improving ecosystem.
Unfortunately, there are still great challenges. One current dilemma centers around encouraging increased visitation, which helps raise funds and increase awareness of bats, without disturbing these rather sensitive animals. Initial studies indicate that too many people might be causing the bats to leave their preferred roosting sites and relocate to alternate areas. This can sometimes result in overcrowding and too much stress to trees overburdened with bats.
Forest loss and fragmentation along the bats' migratory path comprise another threat. Many native Zambian forests are being converted to savanna by poachers and others who indiscriminately set fires.
As part of our growing international focus, BCI is partnering with Kasanka National Park to help the straw-colored fruit bats and their vital ecosystem. Kasanka, with two lodges and two campsites, is entirely reliant on tourism and charitable contributions for revenue. BCI's International Program is awarding a special grant to help protect Kasanka's forest roosts from fires and other disturbances. Some of the important activities the Park is conducting include forest management, such as controlled burns, to prevent widespread devastation from illegal burns and engaging local communities and schools in bat education.
As you will read in this issue, BCI has a long history of protecting bats around the world. We are pleased to be initiating this important partnership with Kasanka National Park to help protect the fruit bats.