Straw-colored fruit bats, giving birth in just one place, pollinate trees throughout central Africa
LUSAKA, Zambia––Public comment on what appears to be one of the most ecologically destructive development projects in all Africa, menacing Kasanka National Park, Zambia, and especially threatening to straw-colored fruit bats, closes on June 16, 2021.
Who cares about African straw-colored fruit bats?
You do, if you care about either African wildlife or fighting hunger in Africa, even if bats are not your favorite furry mammals.
Affects species from aardvarks to zebras
Without African straw-colored fruit bats, for instance, giraffes in many places might have little to eat. Without giraffes, lions might go hungry. Without lions, vultures would starve. Without vultures, disease might spread much more rapidly throughout wildlife populations, afflicting species from aardvarks to zebras.
Suggests Africa Geographic, “If you would like to support the Kasanka Trust in stopping this development, please contact James Mwanza of the Kasanka Trust at [email protected]. To support the Kasanka Trust in objection against the Lake Agro ESIA,” as the project proposal is known, Mwanza “needs to hear from you by June 16, 2021.”
The Kasanka Trust, according to Makanday Media Centre, which is also known as the Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism, “is a wildlife charity which raises its income from tourism revenue and charitable funding for conservation work in and around Kasanka National Park,” located near the grave of British-born African explorer and missionary David Livingstone (1813-1873).
The Kasanka Trust has maintained the park since 1986.
Sick bats do not migrate
Straw-colored fruit bats, Kasanka Trust literature explains, each October through November “come to feast on the pod mahogany, musuku [wild loquat], mufinsa, milkwood, and other wild fruit that appears with the first rains.”
The estimated 3,500 tons of straw-colored fruit bats converging on Kasanka National Park consume as many as 330,000 tons of wild fruit, most of it inedible to humans, during their average two-month stay. Then they sally forth to pollinate trees in at least 29 nations.
“Scientists are not entirely sure where these bats spend the rest of the year,” the Kasanka Trust adds, “though they do know that for some of them, it is somewhere deep in the rainforests of the Congo.”
That might raise fears of straw-colored fruit bats bringing the deadly ebola virus back to Zambia; human consumption of fruit bats is believed to be how the ebola virus crossed from bats to humans.
Zambia, however, has never had an ebola case in the 45 years that the disease has been known. This is seen within the zoonotic disease research community as confirmation that sick bats do not migrate.
Makanday Media Centre & Merlin Tuttle lead opposition
Africa Geographic and the Kasanka Trust are scarcely alone in opposition to the Lake Agro ESIA. The Makanday Media Centre has been trying to alert the world to the threat to straw-colored bats, and hundreds of other rare species native to Kasanka National Park and the surrounding Kafinda Game Management Area, for more than a year now.
Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle recently added his voice to the chorus of protest.
But what exactly is the bat-poop-crazy project that has the opponents all aflutter?
The first point to understand is that the straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) is simultaneously the most widely distributed of all the African megabats, and listed as near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Still considered “common” from the southwestern Arabian Peninsula to the southern woodlands and savanna regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the straw-colored fruit bat is among the most significant tree pollinators wherever the bats occur.
And, since 1980, much and perhaps most of the African straw-colored fruit bat population has been known to birth young in just one place: only 2.5 acres within Kasanka National Park, among the smallest national parks in Zambia.
In the 40-odd years since the importance of Kasanka National Park to African straw-colored fruit bats was discovered, the Zambian human population has approximately tripled, tripling demand for land within which to grow food for humans.
During the same time, however, recognition of the importance of African straw-colored fruit bats as pollinators and seed distributors has increased exponentially, at least among scientists.
Without straw-colored fruit bats, many African tree-grown food crops would fail.
While the bats mostly roost within the densely forested park during their birthing and nursing season, they feed throughout the whole of much larger Kafinda Game Management Area, surrounding the park.
Deforestation for factory farming
Reports Africa Geographic, “This land is currently being illegally deforested by the Tanzanian based Lake Group and its subsidiary Lake Agro Industries. They apparently aim to grow wheat, maize [corn] and soya, amongst other crops,” apparently as fodder for factory-farmed livestock.
“Lake Agro Industries have cleared over 560 hectares [1,400 acres] of natural woodland in the Kafinda Game Management Area,” according to Africa Geographic, whose editorial assessment is that, “The future of the whole area now hangs in the balance.”
“The Zambian government has temporally halted the destruction,” explains Africa Geographic, “but Lake Agro Industries is persevering. They have submitted a formal Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for consideration, requesting permission from the Zambia Environmental Management Agency to develop commercial agriculture and associated infrastructure over a 7,000-hectare footprint inside the Game Management Area, less than three kilometers [about two miles] from the national park where the bats roost. The result of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment will be [announced] on June 18, 2021.”
Hiding the data
However, the actual documents submitted by Lake Agro Industries have not been published on the Zambia Environmental Management Agency web site.
Technically, therefore, “Public comment is thus almost impossible,” says Africa Geographic, although it is possible to comment on the Lake Agro Industries plan in broad outline.
Meanwhile, “The clearing began in 2019, well ahead of obtaining any formal permissions,” Africa Geographic recounts. “Government departments issued three stop orders before closing the [Lake Agro] farm in March 2020.
“Lake Agro Industries claim they have permission to occupy the land because they made a payment to the local traditional authority, Chief Chitambo,” Africa Geographic summarizes. “However, the chief doesn’t have the authorization to give away that amount of land, or override the legal restrictions set out in the Game Management Plan,” which governs the use of the Game Management Area, “and he did not consult the Department of National Parks & Wildlife.”
Elaborated the Makanday Media Centre on August 12, 2020, when the scope and seriousness of the threat to the Kafinda Game Management Area was first becoming known, “The recent trend has been to reduce or eliminate national and local forests in Zambia, which have been protected since the 1950s, in order to use the land for ‘development purposes.’
“In 2017 alone, at least four forests were reduced in size or entirely removed from protection through statutory instruments signed into law by President Edgar Lungu.
“Kasanka, on the southwestern edge of Lake Bangweulu basin,” the Makanday Media Centre explained, “is well endowed with rivers, lakes, wetlands, forests, lagoons, meadows and dambos, and supports a wide range of animals, birds and fish, including sitatunga antelope, the wattled crane, Ross’s turaco, and blue monkeys.”
Yet, “A visit to the park revealed that bulldozers are razing the surrounding forest, prompting activists’ fears that this will diminish the animals’ food source and destroy their habitat by drying up the park’s major river. Lake Agro Industries, with the backing of a local chief, is pushing for a controversial wheat plantation close to the bat sanctuary.”
Chief Chitambo says no one can stand in his way
The Makanday Media Centre traced corporate records to establish that, “Lake Agro is owned by Tanzanian-based energy and transportation conglomerate Lake Petroleum Group, which also owns Gulf Adventures, a private game ranch adjacent to the national park.
“The local chief for the Kasanka area, Chief Chitambo, allegedly handed 15 000 hectares of land bordering the park to the company, without the knowledge of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife or the local district council,” the Makanday Media Centre found.
“In an interview, Chitambo confirmed issuing 5,000 hectares to Lake Agro and said a further 5,000 has been offered to the same investor if more is needed,” the Makanday Media Centre charged. “He said no one, including the Department of Wildlife, could stand in his way in developing his area.”
“Officials from the forestry department, dismayed by the number of trees that had been cut, ordered the suspension of all clearance until the matter had been properly discussed. But the company defied the order,” the Makanday Media Centre investigative team wrote.
Might pump the river dry
“On the day of our visit,” the Makanday Media Centre team observed, “ten bulldozers had been let loose in the forest by developers of the new farming block.
“The developers will be drawing water from the Luwombwa River, a situation which experts say might dry up the river between July and December,” the Makanday Media Centre team continued.
“The pristine miombo woodland is also being altered on a large scale by Gulf Adventures, the private game ranch within Kafinda Game Management Area,” the team noted. “Makanday was told that smaller trees are being eradicated to create a ‘savannah’ or ‘parkland’ effect,” popular with visitors to the manicured private game parks of South Africa, but not the habitat type native to that part of Zambia, hundreds of miles to the north.
“Ranching will have a significant impact on local biodiversity,” the Makanday team explained, “by restricting the movement of larger mammals, including buffalo and elephant, reducing the food supply for migrating bats, and fragmenting the greater Kasanka landscape.”
Paving Paradise to put up a parking lot
Historically, without habitat “improvement” to attract tourists, Kasanka National Park hosts the largest mammal migration in the world, bringing as many as ten million straw-colored fruit bats per year, plus the second most diverse concentration of birds of any Zambian national park.
Kasanka National Park also, according to Africa Geographic, provides habitat to “important populations of the scarce sitatunga antelope, the IUCN Red List Near-Threatened puku antelope; and the little known Kinda baboon.”
Assesses Merlin Tuttle, “The survival of ten million straw-colored fruit bats may hinge on your voice. They come from across equatorial Africa to rear their young. Now both the park, and adjacent forest where bats feed, are threatened by a proposal for expansion of industrial agriculture,” including “authorization to draw water directly from the Luwombwa River which feeds the park’s vital wetlands.
“At peak demand,” alleges Tuttle, “more than 90% of the river would be diverted, threatening the park’s very survival.”