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A Flying Fox in Africa Escapes Extinction


Photo by E Bowen-Jones/Courtesy FFI

By many reckonings we live in scary times. It’s sometimes difficult to find the good news to share. So it’s particularly welcome to report on Halloween that one species of bat in Africa is doing a lot better than it was only a few years ago.

“The Pemba flying fox has made a dramatic return from the brink of extinction,” Fauna & Flora International (FFI), a UK-based conservation organization, announced today.

“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,” FFI said.

FFI attributes the remarkable recovery to emergency intervention efforts, working closely with its local partner, Tanzania’s Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry.

Measures included reducing the threat from hunting, setting up two new forest reserves to preserve the bat’s habitat, and raising awareness of the need for conservation throughout Pemba’s communities. flying-fox-flight.jpg

The Pemba flying fox is a type of fruit bat that lives only on Pemba island in the Zanzibar archipelago off Tanzania. It is one of Africa’s largest bat species, with a wingspan of 5.5 feet.

“Once considered a delicacy, these charismatic bats were hunted and eaten widely throughout the island,” FFI said. “By the 1990s the bats looked doomed, with 90 percent of its forest habitat destroyed and an extremely slow reproductive rate of just one young per adult female each year.”

Photo by E Bowen-Jones/Courtesy FFI

A recent survey indicates that the Pemba flying fox population has recovered to at least 22,000 but possibly up to 35,600 individuals. Several of the species’ roosts are now home to over 1,000 bats.

The species has now been downgraded to “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List for threatened species.

“This amazing resurgence proves that conservation can work, even in the most dire-seeming situations, if the right actions are taken at the right moment,” FFI said.

“Today Pemba flying foxes are much loved by islanders, with nearly 100 percent of local people expressing support for their conservation in a recent opinion poll,” FFI said in a statement. “Pemba flying fox clubs, which help protect the bat through education and monitoring, have been popping up all over the island.”


Photo by E Bowen-Jones/Courtesy FFI

The recovery of the bat has profound repercussions for the island’s ecology. Fruit bats play a vital role as seed dispersers and pollinators and facilitate gene flow between isolated populations of plants.

“Less than twenty years ago this bat looked set to disappear off the face of the planet forever,” said Joy Juma, FFI East Africa Programme assistant. “Thanks to the enthusiasm of local people, FFI’s ongoing conservation efforts have managed to claw this species back from the brink of extinction. At one time roast bat was a very common dish on Pemba. Now people value the bats for different reasons.”

FFI is now helping the island’s ecotourism potential. Community tour guides have been trained and a visitor’s centre has been constructed to help local people benefit from the recovery of the flying fox.

Fauna & Flora International operates in more than 40 countries — mainly in the developing world. The charity helps save species from extinction and habitats from destruction, while improving the livelihoods of local people.

More stories from National Geographic News:

Photo in the News: “Nonexistent” Flying Fox Discovered

Thousands of Flying Foxes Go “Missing” in Australia

Bat Colonies Overwhelming Australian Gardens