A Bold Path for the Future: Opportunities in Protecting Bat colonies in Ghana

“Bats are part of a global ecosystem, with a part to play in its continuing evolution. Must we justify their existence only in terms of what they can do for humans?” (Altringham, 2011)

Picture of a Bat

Straw colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum)

The whole world is changing at an unprecedented rate – habitat destruction, through the daily changing face of our landscape and climate change are the biggest threats to wildlife conservation. This phenomenon has affected bat populations worldwide.

Bats are unfortunately largely misunderstood group of wildlife – often persecuted and disliked wherever they occur. Despite accounting for roughly 20% of mammals’ species, the African continent still remains a bat-conservation area with very limited research and conservation effort that is further compounded by lack of funding and resources for opportunities to conserve bat colonies.

Threats to bats

Sadly, many bats colonies in Ghana are under severe threat from increasing human pressure. Habitat loss, climate change, roost destruction, deforestation, bushmeat trade, disturbance and persecution, are all causes of bats declining nationwide. Traditional fears of bats are based on exaggerated negative portrayals of bats, such as demons feeding on human blood and false information about bats such that bats defecate from their mouth.

Most bats have good eyesight, and are incredibly agile using echolocation calls to navigate. Such calls are described as noisy and a nuisance to people. Bats will avoid you even if there were a thousand of them around you. Research has shown that if a bat flies around you it is most likely that it is foraging on insects that are attracted by your body heat around you. So they serve as a good body protector. There are no vampire bats in Africa; vampire bats are found in Central and South America. People also fear contracting rabies from bats. Rabies is no more prevalent in bats than most other animal-eating mammals but people are far more likely to catch rabies from a domestic or wild carnivore than a bat. The only time bats in Africa will bite people is if they are trapped and being handled. If you find a bat stuck inside a building or injured outside please wear gloves before you handle the bat.

Some bat species are classified as threatened as the black rhino (Critically Endangered) or cheetah (Vulnerable). In southern Africa there are 14 bat species that are considered by The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be Data Deficient – in other words, so little is known about these species that they cannot be assessed. At least 18% of bats are considered to be threatened globally, and bats are currently being reassessed using updated

information to determine their extinction risk. With increased human-induced impacts it is likely that we are going to see this figure grow. (www.batconafrica.net)

In Ghana, and for that matter in the Brong Ahafo Region, the current spate of hunting of the fruit bat for bushmeat is very disturbing, especially, at Tano Boase, a community in the Techiman North District, this has caused the migration of the fruit bats to the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Sunyani, creating an artificial population explosion which is probably due to disturbance from hunting.

Importance of Bats

About a third of bats are fruit or nectar feeding, and in the process they pollinate numerous plants and disperse seeds. In Sunyani, on the campus of the University of Energy and Natural Resources, which has the largest known congregation of fruit bat roost in Brong Ahafo, with an impressive population, estimated to be two hundred thousand, these straw-coloured fruit bats migrate to the University Bat Sanctuary and surrounding trees between October and the end of December, and January to March each year for what is now considered to be the biggest migration in Brong Ahafo. Their nightly flight departures, which occur at 1820hrs daily, can be viewed with awe and can be likened to the magnificent Great Serengeti migration.

A comparative picture of a Baobab tree in November and December in Sunyani

A comparative picture of a Baobab tree in November and December in Sunyani

The nightly one-hour emergence of bats from their roost in Sunyani is one of the great wildlife events in the Brong Ahafo Region. It is something a lot of people miss daily without appreciating it.

These fruit bats eat and disperse plants over a wide range of our landscape daily. They pollinate many plants; in Ghana studies have shown that they disperse very important forest trees. Fruit bats pollinate the legendary baobab tree – these iconic trees have cultural and aesthetic value. Baobabs are affectionately known as the ‘upside down tree’ or the ‘tree of life’ – for good reason, these trees provide shelter, water and food for people as well as other animals. (www.baconafrica.net)

A study published in Science, in fact, calculated that U. S. bats provide about $23 billion in annual benefits to U. S. agriculture.

The question is, have we as a nation been able to assess the economic benefit in terms of fruit bats’contribution to our ailing ecosystem? The current wave of destruction of our

ecosystem by ‘galamsey’ operators may be recovered by fruit bats because of the huge volume of seeds they disperse during their foraging bouts daily, if we can help to protect their colonies.

 Bats have also been linked to very high rodent plasmodium parasite. In a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences of the United States it has been documented that

“bats are considered important reservoir hosts for many pathogens, particularly viruses, and have unusually high immunological tolerances. The abundant malaria parasite infections are consistent with this exceptional immunology and suggest that in bats the parasites repeatedly evolved life cycles away from disease-causing replication in red blood cells to less pathogenic propagation in liver tissue.” Juliane Schaer PNAS, October 22, 2013, vol. 110 no. 43.

This study can be used as an evolutionary study into malaria parasite model and biological transmission and efficacy in human beings.

 

What can be done?

As part of a research going on at the University of Energy and Natural Resources on these flying mammals, the author is trying among other things, to create educational resources, targeted to fruit bats and the Ghanaian audience, based on our cultures, so that we can be able to demystify bats.

Bat conservation groups in Africa has come together to form “Batconafrica” that share ideas on bats in Africa. This group is linked to Bat Conservation International (BCI), the world conservation group on bat research in addition to the IUCN’s effort to help in conservation of the world’s mammals.

In Ghana several efforts are being done to help conserve these animals through research. Currently, Dr Richard Suu-Ire, the veterinary doctor in charge of Accra Zoo/Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission is doing some work on bats and their zoo genesis in Ghana, “Bats and emerging zoonoses”. It has been found out that despite the habitation of some diseases like rabies in bats they have not been proven to transmit it to human beings.

Dr. Bright Kankam, from Forestry Research Institute of Ghana(FORIG), has also worked on “The Role of the Fruit Bat (Eidolon helvum) in Seed Dispersal, Survival and Germination in Milicia excelsa, a very economical timber tree species and it has been established that these mammals disperse the seeds in the tropical environment. If we protect bat colonies these trees will be established.

 Mr. Abedi-Lartey, a PhD student from International Max Planck Research School for Organismal Biology in Germany, is currently collecting data on the ecology of bats in West Africa: “Ecology and Conservation Prospects of the Straw-colored Fruit Bat (Eidolon helvum)”. All these effort including the current study by the author on the “Effect of phenology of roost trees on ecology of Eidolon helvum in Sunyani” are efforts into the understanding of these flying mammals and hope it will go a long way to establish their conservation potential in the country and in Africa as a whole, while creating opportunities for protecting their colonies in Ghana.

By

James Agyei-Ohemeng (Principal Technician)

University of Energy and Natural Resources

Sunyani