Tourists visiting Cambodia are inevitably drawn to the beautiful Wat Phnom in the kingdom’s bustling capital, Phnom Penh. Last week however, a group of scientists from nine countries (UK, US, Ireland, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei) turned their attention to the Wat’s noisy neighbours – a spectacular colony of fruit bats known as Lyle’s flying fox.
The group gathered for a three-day workshop on flying foxes organised by the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) and the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit (SEABCRU). The CBC is a non-profit unit created by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, committed to training Cambodian biologists and to the study and conservation of Cambodian biodiversity. The SEABCRU is a global network of bat biologists dedicated to research on Southeast Asian bat conservation, led by Dr Tigga Kingston of Texas Tech University with support from the US National Science Foundation.
Lyle’s flying fox is one of 31 species of flying fox in Southeast Asia, and like more than half of these charming creatures, its populations are declining so fast they are at risk of extinction.
Plant-visiting bats provide vital services for people because they disperse seeds and pollinate flowers, including many Southeast Asian favourites such as durian. Despite these benefits and legal protection, hunting of bats for bush meat and traditional medicine is common in many areas, while destruction of the habitats they depend on increases yearly. More broadly, lack of reliable data and capacity also hamper conservation efforts.
The purpose of the workshop was to develop capacity for population assessments, species identification and disease and dietary studies in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. In bringing together international specialists and a wide variety of local stakeholders, it is hoped that this will lead to better understanding and protection of these threatened animals.
Bats form a critical component of Southeast Asia’s mammal fauna, constituting around 30% of the region’s mammal species. By the same token, Southeast Asia is a pivotal area for global bat conservation as it supports nearly 30% of the world’s bat fauna.
Just 13 years ago, Cambodia was described as “one of the least explored countries” worldwide in terms of its bat fauna. This was when only 30 bat species were known for the kingdom, while over 100 were known from Vietnam and the same for Thailand. Since then, research by the CBC and its collaborators have more than doubled the number of bats known, with 70 species now documented, including five entirely new to science.
Though clearly much remains to be learnt, with interest burgeoning among young Cambodian scientists, the future for these mysterious creatures looks more and more promising.