A once critically endangered bat species, the ‘Pemba flying fox’, has made a dramatic return from the brink of extinction, according to new research. As recently as 1989, only a scant few individual fruit bats could be observed on the tropical island of Pemba, off Tanzania. Its numbers have since soared to an astounding 22,000 bats in less than 20 years, the new research finds.
The species was facing imminent extinction in the 1990’s when Fauna & Flora International (FFI) first took action to save it. Once considered a delicacy, these charismatic bats were hunted and eaten widely throughout the island. By the 1990s the bats looked doomed, with 95% of its forest habitat destroyed and an extremely slow reproductive rate (just one young per adult female each year).
The FFI-initiated survey, carried out by Janine Robinson for the University of East Anglia, indicates that the Pemba flying fox population has fully recovered to at least 22,000 but possibly up to 35,600 individuals – proving that conservation can work, even in the most dire-seeming situations.
Over the past 13 years, FFI has helped to reduce the threat from hunting, set up two new forest reserves to safeguard the bat’s habitat and raised awareness of the need for conservation throughout Pemba’s communities. The species has now been downgraded to ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List for threatened species.
Today, Pemba flying foxes are much loved by islanders, with local people helping to protect the bat through community-led “Pemba flying fox clubs”.
FFI East Africa Programme Assistant, Joy Juma, has played a crucial role in FFI’s efforts to save the bat.
“Less than twenty years ago this bat looked set to disappear off the face of the planet forever. Thanks to the enthusiasm of local people, FFI’s ongoing conservation efforts have managed to claw this species back from the brink of extinction,” said Joy. “At one time roast bat was a very common dish on Pemba. Now people value the bats for different reasons.”
This recovery is testament to successful emergency intervention efforts by FFI, working closely with a local partner, the Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry (DCCFF).
Flying Fox Facts:
- The Pemba flying fox is a type of ‘old world fruit bat’, endemic to the island of Pemba, Tanzania, meaning it cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
- The bat’s wingspan is estimated at over 5.5 feet.
- The bat has an average body weight of between 400-650g, which is about half the weight of the average guinea pig.
- Fruit bats are ecologically and economically important - particularly so on oceanic islands - playing a vital role as seed dispersers and pollinators and facilitating ‘gene flow’ between isolated populations of plants.
- Flying foxes belong to the sub-order Megachiroptera, of which there are 167 species worldwide, and are the largest bats in the world.
- Island endemic species are thought to be particularly vulnerable to extinction, primarily due to their small geographic range. The fact that they have evolved in isolation from predators and competitors (particularly humans), makes them vulnerable to the effects of overexploitation and introduced species.
- Islands have been highlighted as one of the priority areas for the global conservation of bats, as they contain a large proportion of the world’s most threatened bats.
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