One of the great wildlife wonders of the world unfolds at the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Sunyani. As the sun sets, up to over a million of fruit bats unfurl their wings, release their grip on the sagging branches of their tree roosts of the university wildlife sanctuary and other trees on the campus and take to the sky.
A few lead the way, soaring off gracefully on those wings. Then more follow, and more still, until the sky is filled with bats flying off in every direction. Over one million mammals in flight create an amazing and beautiful spectacle.
The straw-coloured fruit bats (Eidolon helvum), their numbers growing rapidly until, by the last week of November 2012, up to about 10 million are packed among the trees on the university campus as our neighbours.
So heavy are these dense clusters that branches often break, dropping bats to the ground. Some are injured in the fall and promptly collected by people passing by who use them as bushmeat.
These bats often space themselves about a wingspread apart while roosting, their roosting behaviour is so distinctive that from a distance, they look like swarm of honeybees, their densely packed brown bodies hanging from every bole and branch of every tree and even from one another.
These bats are one of the most important players in regenerating Ghana’s degraded forests. They are known at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra, where they faced a major onslaught some years ago, Kibi in the Eastern Region, Tano Boase in the Brong Ahafo Region, where they are facing a major threat through hunting, and Wli Falls in the Volta Region.
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The number of bats in these large, vulnerable roosts is thought to have declined in recent decades. The primary threats include human hunting for food and the loss of habitat to expanding agriculture.
Fruit bats often roost in tall trees in busy villages and towns and on lake or river islands. The colonies typically are huge, conspicuous – and extremely vulnerable to human persecution, in parts of Africa, particularly West Africa, they are hunted for food.
The presence of these bats as our neighbours is to create a platform where observations, notes, ideas and discussions on conservation of bats in the University of Energy and Natural Resources (UENR) can be published.
This will aim to complement research on bats in Ghana and Africa. It is hoped that the information published and recorded on the UENR campus will become an invaluable resource tool for the assessment of bats in Ghana, their conservation status, and possible rate of decline, threats and potential solutions.
The presence of the bats has provided us with a very sound environment to monitor them since there are few monitoring sites of bats in Ghana. This colony in the University of Energy and Natural Resources, for example, will be protected and looked after by the university authorities and several programmes will be set in motion to promote their conservation through international bodies such as Bat Conservation International, Fauna, Flora International and The World Conservation Union(IUCN) to prevent their destruction.
The females examined at the time of writing this article, were either pregnant, with a fetus in mid to late pregnancy, or were carrying newborn pups. Pregnant females apparently travel to this area, probably migrating from Accra, Kibi or Tano Boase over these distances, because the university area has enough trees to support the increased number of pregnant and lactating mothers.
Another reason could be to avoid an onslaught on them at various sites in the country, through hunting, especially Tano Boase, a community along the Techiman-Kintampo road. The trees on the campus are laden with these fruits. At the roost, many feces carry seeds which are being collected by the university to nurse at the nursery to identify the type of fruits they feed on.
Estimating the number of fruit bats roosting in trees or dispersing at dusk is difficult, and large errors are inevitable. Nonetheless, the millions of bats at the university represent one of the largest aggregation of mammals in Ghana.
There is growing concern about the potential impact of the bush meat trade on a range of animal species. Attention has often focused on primates and other large mammals but to date, there has been little focus on bats. There is some evidence that hunting and trade is having a significant impact on bat populations in certain areas of the world, such as West Africa and South-East Asia, but there is no global view of the potential impact of this threat on bat species in Ghana.
Techiman market is a very good area for a research into ‘bats as bush meat’ to assess the scale of the problem and identify where issues relating to trade and hunting need to be addressed.
Having identified this priority area, the university seeks to look for long term collaboration to look for funds for activities that will be undertaken as part of Global Bat Conservation Programme.
The current paradigm shift on scientific information to attract funding is a cross cutting research effort that addresses science and increase knowledge.
In South Africa, a group of final-year Electronic Engineering students (known as the B.A.T.S. Team) at the University of KwaZulu Natal, are in the process of producing a data logger/loft monitor for the purposes of recording technical data regarding the behaviour of bats living in the lofts of houses/buildings. They are conducting a survey regarding the viability of their proposal and how they could make it useful to conservationists and/or scientists. In the same way, the new School of Natural Resources Management in UENR would develop interesting modules of projects that could attract funds internationally and help in the conservation of this wildlife secrete.
As a matter of monitoring, two projects for students on the ‘Phenology of trees associated with the Bats on UENR campus’ and ‘The seed dispersal potential of Bats on UENR campus’ are forming the bases of our monitoring programmes in the short term or in the long term for these bat population.
The Bat is also one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Now that the University of Energy and Natural Resources has been born into the tertiary institutions in Ghana, that secret is about to be shared with many more people around the world.
We hope the attention and conservationists dollars will help protect these bats. Not only do these fruit bats sow seeds during their long distant flights, but they also venture 65 kilometres or more from their roosts on night foraging flights, scattering seeds in their faeces along the way. They eat enormous quantities of seed-rich fruit. Conserving these fruit bats is crucial to the health of vast stretches of Ghana’s forests and to the country’s timber industry.
Article by James Agyei-Ohemeng