The city of Honiara overlooks Iron Bottom Sound in the South Pacific. In 1942-43, thirty Japanese and Allied ships were sunk or scuttled in these waters during the battle for Guadalcanal Island. Thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the jungle, most often of disease.
Today, the Sound and its lost ships lure reef fish and scuba divers, who come to the Solomon Islands and points south and west to explore the stunning beauty and diversity of the “Coral Triangle,” a region with more than 500 reef-building corals and 3,000-plus species of fish.
Conservation in the Pacific has focused mainly on marine ecosystems. But reefs depend on ridges, and the ridges are rich with bats. The Solomons, along with nearby Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, form a “Chiroptera Triangle” – a global hotspot of bat diversity.
But the coastal and montane forests of many Pacific Islands are just about gone, their tropical hardwoods clear-cut by foreign timber companies. As the timber played out, cash-strapped communities and governments turned to leasing land for large-scale agriculture and mining. New roads, often little more than bulldozed swaths, soon cut through the forests. The soil that washes away from raw roads, logged hillsides and mines finds its way to the ocean where it can quickly clog and kill a reef.
BCI director of global programs, Dr. Dave Waldien, and I spent two December weeks in the region, beginning in Fiji at the 9th Pacific Islands Conference on Nature Conservation and Protected Areas. More than 850 multinational and national officials, community leaders and conservationists attended.
Terrestrial conservation lags far behind protection of marine systems here, but in places it’s catching up. Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and other countries that signed on to “The Micronesia Challenge” have pledged to protect at least 30 percent of their marine territory and 17 percent of their terrestrial ecosystems. On Fiji, the group NatureFiji-MareqetaViti is teaching children the importance of protecting Fiji’s bats and forests. In the Solomons, several large islands have been set aside as nature preserves, and organizations are helping communities find economic alternatives to intensive logging and mining – or helping them cope after the effects of such activity become obvious.
As outlined in this issue of BATS, BCI has completed a five-year Strategic Plan to achieve lasting conservation results at a scale commensurate with the threats bats face. We must find new ways of leveraging our knowledge and resources to serve as a better catalyst for global bat conservation, while also increasing our own on-the-ground conservation work. Above all, we must dedicate ourselves to preventing further bat extinctions. And BCI will act to protect species made vulnerable by restricted ranges, such as the Florida bonneted bat (see page 18) and Pacific island bats. As our knowledge of bats’ ranges and locations increases, we will also identify and protect outstanding areas with high numbers of sometimes less-threatened bat species. Our ultimate goal is ensuring the survival of every bat species.
That’s urgently needed. Fiji’s national mammal, the Mirimiri flying fox (Mirimiri acrodonta), is an iconic fruit bat with prominent orange eyes. It appears on Fiji’s ten-cent coins – but almost nowhere else: scientists recently spent 40 days searching forests where the Mirimiri lives on Taveuni Island and saw only one.
We’re not giving up on the Mirimiri or any of the other bats that seem down to their last refuges. It’s quite possible that, as we accelerate field surveys around the world, new populations of such species will be discovered. But chances are that new threats to those populations will be right behind us.
We must act more quickly, more efficiently, in more places and with more partners than ever before. And we need the support of more donors who love and appreciate bats. It’s truly a race. But the world is waking up to the intrinsic beauty and diversity of bats and their irreplaceable contributions to ecosystem health and human well-being.
Our founder, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, has done more than any other individual to create this new appreciation of bats, and he remains one of their most influential advocates aroud the world. It’s Merlin’s vision and legacy that the staff and Board of BCI will continue under this transformational Strategic Plan.