By Jen Freeman
One of Boracay’s most well-loved and iconic wildlife species faces a grave threat, according to local conservation group Friends of the Flying Foxes (FFF).
For locals and tourists alike, the sight of the fruit bats traversing to the Aklan mainland against the backdrop of a vivid Boracay sunset has long been a magical and unforgettable sight. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious, even to the casual observer, that their numbers are dropping steadily, and concern has once again been voiced over the future of the bats here on this island.
The flying foxes, so named for their foxlike faces, play an essential role in regenerating the forests of both Boracay and the Northwest Panay Peninsula by feeding and excreting the seeds of more than 300 species of plants and trees, including banana, papaya, fig, talisay and molave. The largest flying mammal in the world, adults can weigh up to 1.2 kilograms, with a wingspan of around five feet.
Boracay is home to 3 species of large fruit bats; the Common Island Flying Fox, the Large Flying Fox, and the Golden Crowned Flying Fox. These bats roost in the forests of barangay Yapak, where they sleep during the day. As the seasons, winds and temperatures change, the bats move between roosting areas; during the Habagat months, they inhabit the trees of Ilig-Iligan, while in Amihan season, they transfer to the hills between Shangri-La and Puka Shell Beach, which offer protection from the strong winds.
At night, most of the bats fly over to the mainland to feed, sometimes travelling as far as 40 kilometers each night, and during Amihan season you can often see them against the horizon at sunset. After their night of foraging, they then return to the island to rest before sunrise.
Flying foxes are essential in maintaining a variety of ecosystems, since they are able to move pollen and seeds over long distances and across cleared ground, thus linking patches of native vegetation. Some trees, such as durians, can only be pollinated by bats, as they bloom specifically at night.
Of the three fruit bat species found on Boracay, the Golden Crowned flying fox (Acerodon Jubatus) is of particular interest to conservationists, who have conducted extensive studies on their role of Boracay's ecosystem. Endemic to the Philippines, these bats are officially classified as endangered worldwide, and as such, urgently require our protection. Unfortunately, however, it appears that these creatures are becoming yet another casualty of the relentless development of the island.
Friends of the Flying Foxes, who have been monitoring the population at their roost sites, have noticed a drastic reduction in their numbers in recent years, with just 418 bats recorded as of the last count this year, compared to an estimated 2,425 in May 2017, which dropped to 1,608 individuals as of February 2018. For comparison, there were an estimated 15,000 bats in 1986.
The shrinking population has been linked to the hunting of the bats for food, particularly during the six month closure of Boracay for rehabilitation, when many local families found themselves without employment or a means to feed their families.
However, the ongoing destruction of their habitat is undoubtedly the most pressing concern. In July of 2018, private developer Mabuhay Maritime Express inc received a fine from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) having illegally razed some 70 trees in the vicinity of the roost site at Barangay Yapak in 2017. The 500 square meter area was bulldozed in the absence of any Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC). Developers are required to secure an ECC before commencing their activities to certify that they will not cause environmental hazards or damage.
On their Facebook page, FFF documented the stress and disruption caused to the migrating bats due to this clearing of their preferred breeding site.
“At that time, June 2017, the bats had already moved to the Habagat roost site from the area that was bulldozed and so there was no effect on the count in 2017. The following year, 2018, when the bats returned to have their babies in that roost site (from) April to June during the closure, their roosting trees were already gone and we fear that the stress of that is the result we see today,” the group said.
Noise from tourist related activities also factors into the equation, and causes disturbance to the bats’ sleeping, feeding and mating patterns. Island hopping tour boats frequently blast their horns to call lingering guests back aboard from Puka Beach, and the loud music from party cruise yachts also pervades the forest and wakes the nocturnal bats, who can be seen circling around the trees during hours they would normally be roosting.
These conservation issues have long been a focus of Friends of the Flying Foxes, who founded the non-profit, non-government organization back in 2004, upon learning of the invaluable role these creatures play in maintaining the fragile balance of the island’s ecosystem. Concerned local residents, together with wildlife experts, realized that the bats – and their forest home - were not being protected from the onslaught of development, and came together to give them a voice.
“Boracay still retains significant patches of globally threatened beach forests over limestone – such rare type of forests habitats are almost cleared in the country saved for some sections of Palawan region, pacific coastal areas of northern Sierra Madre and on smaller islands in the Philippines. The forests are disappearing fast in the Philippines and on Boracay, and it is of utmost importance that the remaining beach forests and its threatened, endemic and native wildlife should be protected,” the group says.
“Many of the canopy and emergent trees growing on steep limestone substrate are more than 50 years old and some may be close to 100 years old. These trees ought to be preserved and form part of the natural treasures of Boracay Island,” they reiterated.
Friends of the Flying Foxes, along with other concerned stakeholders on the island, have petitioned concerned government agencies for the remaining forests, Puka Shell Beach and the bat roosting sites to be declared as Critical Habitat, under Republic Act (RA) 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Protection and Conservation Act, further requesting that hunting should not be tolerated at the roost sites, and a buffer zone of 200 meters be established to keep human disturbance to a minimum. And last year, after a biodiversity assessment was conducted on the island, Environment secretary Roy Cimatu vowed to sign an administrative order for this purpose.
Currently, however, the Boracay Critical Habitat zone has yet to be established, pending a resolution from the Malay LGU, through the Sangguniang Bayan, for this purpose.
In a recent statement, DENR-BMB Director Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez stressed that the group remain committed to establishing the habitat plan.