PRECIOUS NEIGHBORS: Philippine Flying Foxes

The Giant Golden-crowned Flying Foxes, or golden-capped fruit  bats, are among the biggest bats in the world and are endemic to the Philippines. They can only be found in Philippine forests and are currently under serious threat of extinction — which makes these mysteriously beautiful creatures very precious.

MEET MY NEIGHBORS

Who would have thought that all my life, I’ve been living around with these nocturnal flying mammals. Somewhere in the barrio of San Jose in the Municipality of Quezon, Bukidnon, these Flying Foxes have a colony in what locals call “the enchanted forest.” We were forbidden to enter the forest because legend has it that anyone who goes in will have trouble coming out, unless they are accompanied by someone who knows the area really well or is respected by the magical creatures inhabiting the woods.

The bat’s colony is situated inside a private property around four miles (7 kilometers) away from the barrio center where I live. When this ranch was sold to new hands about eight years ago, there were four roosting trees in that enchanted forest and back then there was nothing very enchanting to me about that place as I didn’t know what kind of bats lived there. What I knew was that when people in that place didn’t have jobs yet, the forest was a reliable source of food. People were free (at least had a lower chance of getting caught) to hunt in the forest and exploit the natural resources.

HOPE FOR THE FOXES

Under new management, however, new rules and regulations were established and implemented. Non-employees are no longer allowed within the premises, certain areas are put under the Department of Environment’s reforestation project and poachers are strictly prohibited. In roughly eight years today, the roosting trees have increased from four to forty two. That’s thirty eight more trees! what makes it even more amazing is that from the so-called enchanted forest, they have actually spread out towards the dirt road that runs from the gate to the workers’ housing complex. Anyone who passes through that road in broad daylight can easily see them dangling from the bare branches of the trees they occupy, hear their squeaking and smell the pungent scent of their urine.

Only when I came this close to them did I take interest in how magnificent they look and how big they actually are. The bats I saw before were like house mice, but these were like winged cats! I searched them in the internet and that’s when I learned that they’re called the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Foxes and are on the brink of extinction. It’s easy to see why they’re called by this name. An adult can weigh between 1.5 to 2.6 lb or 0.7 to to 1.2 kilograms with a wingspan of 1.5 to 1.7 meters or 4 ft to 5 ft 7 in long (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_golden-crowned_flying_fox). They have a golden fur around their heads that looks very distinct from their dark bodies.

Photo of a Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox (image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_golden-crowned_flying_fox)
Photo of a Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox
(image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_golden-crowned_flying_fox)

I recently had the chance to visit their habitat up close. People in the area said it was okay as long as we didn’t do anything to disturb or scare them, or go there frequently. From the dirt road we had to walk through a very narrow trail that was almost choked by vines of strangler trees. The forest was also teeming with a rattan, a plant from the palm family that has a really thorny stem. We had to be careful not to get scratched.

Rattan grows in abundance in the forest where the bats live
Rattan grows in abundance in the forest where the bats live

Several meters into the forest, the smell of bat urine in the air became stronger and their squeaks grew louder. A few seconds more and we finally found ourselves standing in the middle of a small clearing, looking up to the canopy of sleeping giant bats. There were others that must have noticed our presence and detached themselves from their branch in the tree. They didn’t go far though, they were just flying around as if looking down to see who came to visit. The feeling of simply being there with them was indescribable.

The feeling of standing under these magnificent creatures (and sometimes getting peed on by them) is beyond compare.
The feeling of standing under these magnificent creatures (and sometimes getting peed on by them) is beyond compare.

Our Talaandig guide told me that the river is not very far away from where we stood. I remember what I have read from articles about this species. They choose to live along river corridors because this is where fig trees grow. Fig fruits are their favorite food. This doesn’t mean they don’t leave the place to hunt though. At dusk, they all begin to awake from their slumber and fly to as far as forty to fifty kilometers in search for food. On their way home before dawn the next day, they drop seeds from their mouths which will grow into a whole plant when they land on fertile soil. Thus, these creatures contribute so much to reforestation and no doubt play a very significant role in maintaining balance in our ecosystem (visit sospecies.org for more information on Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Foxes and see what people are doing to save these and other endangered species).

Map showing golden-capped bat roost sites in the Philippines (from sospecies.org)
Map showing golden-capped bat roost sites in the Philippines (from sospecies.org). Bukidnon is very blessed to be among the less than twenty sites left in the country.

It’s true that God gave us the plants and animals to eat, but today He also gave people other skills besides hunting so we can raise and grow domestic animals and plants for food. He also enabled us to have jobs so we can afford to buy food from supermarkets. We have plenty of food to share and certainly no reason to hunt them, disturb the delicate balance of nature and cause them to finally go extinct.

I began sharing this information about our very own Philippine Flying Foxes with my two small kids and although they didn’t appreciate it that much when I told them in the forest because they were more concerned about how creepy it felt to stand deep in the wilderness, I know deep in my heart that pretty soon they will. I also shared it with my husband, who happens to be one of the primary persons responsible for the security of area that he may share it with his people and discourage poaching even more.

Now, I’m sharing this to you hoping you might also share this with your friends, or tell your children about how these bats plant trees and help maintain our Philippine forests (ever wonder how that balete tree found its way to your gutter or your rooftop?).

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