This week Amelaid and I headed to the village of Dindri on the east of Anjouan to visit the nearby Livingstone’s fruit bat roost. Accompanying us was a local school teacher Toimi who takes a keen interest in the bats. The walk to this roost is one of the least demanding. The land is so heavily cultivated that we don’t even walk through any forest before arriving.
We didn’t set off with high expectations; previous counts have shown a big decline in numbers of Livingstones at this roost. Toimi explained that the area used to be covered in big trees but since the millennium there’s been lots of felling for firewood and construction, including the principal roost tree for the Livingstone’s fruit bats. There was also a big landslide here soon after large trees were felled. Toimi told us “In the past people didn’t cultivate this far from the village. Now the landscape has changed and villagers also have to walk a long way to find firewood.”
However, on arrival at the roost, even our low expectations were dashed when didn’t find a single Livingstone at the roost. It seems they’ve finally abandoned this roost altogether and left it over to the much more numerous (and noisy) fruit bat Pteropus seychellensis. A sign of how degraded the forest has become was that there were even tomatoes planted nearby, which are not shade crops like the banana and taro that we’re used to finding planted under forest trees.
After the disappointment of the abandoned Dindri roost, the next day we launched straight in to one of the longest climbs up to the roost at Mpage. Amelaïd and I thought we knew where we were going, but after climbing up the ridge for over two hours we were met by a very different landscape to what we remembered from the last time we were here six months ago. A lot of trees had been felled, making it difficult to find the right paths. I lost some of my love for the forest whilst scrambling around the slopes searching for this roost for nearly an hour with branches whipping across my face and getting stuck in my rucksack pulling me back.
We finally caught sight of the bats when we found ourselves in a field above the roost trees which had been cleared so recently that the tree stumps were still weeping sap. From our last visit I remembered this site to have been a text book roost site in pristine forest, so it was a real shock to see the change. It’s so far from the village that the farmer has built a hut next to his field, so he doesn’t have to climb up every day.
My immediate reaction is anger at what is happening to the forest and horror at the thought that the bats’ roost tree is next in line. But when you meet the individuals responsible you simply see someone trying to get by and take enough home to feed his family.
This is why the projects work supporting sustainable methods of intensifying agricultural production is so important. With the right skills, tools and knowledge Comorian farmers should be able to produce enough crops in existing agricultural land without needing to climb even further into the forest in search of fertile soils.
After carrying out our count of the bats at the roost, we managed to speak to the field owner and were relieved to hear that he does not plan to fell the big trees that the bats use because they hold the soil together for his crops. He also stated that he knows that they disperse seeds and that it is thanks to the bats that he has a forest to work in.
This is encouraging because the Mpage roost appears to be a bit of a bat nursery. At first sight the individuals looked unusually big, but when they opened their wings to warm up in the sun’s rays we realised that the majority had infants clinging to their chests. In total we counted 36 bats, and of those, 22 were carrying infants.
The rapid clearance of forest for cultivation shows how crucial land management planning in Anjouan is, so that food can be produced in certain areas and important areas of forest protected. No official protection exists either for this species or for the habitat it depends on, and the forest is disappearing fast.