Off to Rodrigues
By Kim Lengel, Vice President of Conservation and Education
Some more background on how the Philly Zoo became a champion for endangered bats half way around the world. First, it's not unusual for us to support wildlife conservation both at home and abroad. That's one of our primary missions as a zoo and conservation organization. But why bats and why this species? Bats are certainly not considered one of the "charismatic megavertebrates" (big mammals) but are more than charismatic enough for me. With close to 1000 species, bats are one of the most specious mammal groups—second only to rodents. Bats are found all over the world, except in areas of extreme cold, and have evolved a diversity of appearances and feeding habits—from the mega-fruit bat group (of with the Rodrigues fruit bat is a medium-sized member) to the tiny bumblebee bat of Thailand (no larger than an adult thumb). There are bats that eat insects, bats that eat leaves, bats that eat other animals (frogs, fish, birds, small mammals, etc.), bats that eat blood, bats that eat nectar, and bats that eat fruit. Rodrigues fruit bats are fruit and leaf specialists.
Wall map of Rodrigues
Upon our arrival in Rodrigues we were met by the MWF team leader on Rodrigues – Andrea Waterstone. Andrea manages a team of 11 people, including Rodrigues Environmental Educator, Liliana Ally, focused on conservation of Rodrigues endemic species – Rodrigues fruit bat, Rodrigues brush warbler, and Rodrigues fody as well as a whole host of incredible plants. It’s wonderful to see how this team has grown over the years. Back in 1998 when the Philadelphia Zoo first began funding an environmental educator on Rodrigues, the team numbered 2, including the educator. Andrea told us that the consistency of our support over the years has allowed MWF to focus on growth opportunities and thus the team has expanded.
Arriving in Rodrigues
Andrea Waterstone, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation Team Leader on Rodrigues at the Grand Montagne Nature Reserve.
Rodrigues Environmental Educator, Liliana Ally.
I first visited Rodrigues in 1995 when I lived there for three months catching bats for genetic sampling and teaching about bats in the schools. I developed a passion for these bats through working with them as a zookeeper at Philly Zoo, through studying them during a summer conservation course at Gerald Durrell's Wildlife Preservation Trust in Jersey Isle, UK in 1989 and through my work with the AZA captive population as the Species Coordinator. When I decided to go back to school for my master's, my dream was to study Rodrigues fruit bats. My graduate thesis compared the genetic diversity in the wild population of bats to the population in zoos in the North America with the end goal of developing management strategies to maximize retention of diversity in the captive population. That's the goal of all captive populations - to retain as much diversity from the wild population as possible. But before I could determine how well we were doing that for Rodrigues fruit bats in North America, I had to figure out how to measure diversity in both populations. At Villanova University I learned to use mitochondrial DNA data as a measure of diversity. All I needed now was genetic material from all the bats in North America and a sampling of bats in Rodrigues. I had relatively easy access to captive bats through connections with my colleagues at zoos, but getting material from wild bats was what brought me to Rodrigues. My goal was to capture bats using mist nets and to take small sample of wing tissue for later genetic analysis. With tons of help from Dr. Carl Jones, then director of MWF, I was able to get permission to mist net the bats. But I didn't want to just visit the Rodrigues, catch bats, and disappear. I was passionate about these bats and I wanted to do what I could to help their plight. By the early '90s the bat population had recovered somewhat and was estimated to be around 1500. They were still highly vulnerable to extinction since there were very few forested areas left on Rodrigues where these bats could roost (Rodrigues fruit bats like most large fruit bats spend their days resting in the tops of large trees) and one severe cyclone could decimate the population. I wanted to support the initial work that MWF had started on Rodrigues by raising awareness of the bats with Rodriguans and by making Rodriguans aware that lots of people in Europe and North America cared about conservation of THEIR bat (Rodrigues fruit bats can be found in zoos in both Europe and North America). So with the AZA's Bat Taxon Advisory Group (Bat TAG) members, we created a teaching "kit" to leave with teachers on the island for their use in talking about bats to their students. While on Rodrigues in 1995, my Zoo colleague and I taught a bat lesson from the kit to every fourth grade student on the island and in so doing, we not only raised the bats profile among young people and their teachers, but their parents too—we learned our non-conventional bat lesson caused quite a bit of talk and many parents heard about the two American women who dressed up like bats and played bat games in the classroom. When we surveyed teachers and students about the lesson, we found lots of enthusiasm to learn more and thus the idea of the Rodrigues Environmental Educator Project (REEP) was born. It would take us three more years to acquire funding to support it and to really get it started but in 1998, the first REEP, Mary Jane Raboude, was hired. MJ would continue in the role for a decade and make a huge impact on environmental conservation on Rodrigues. She was followed by Andrea Waterstone and Liliana Ally who have continued to positively influence environmental attitudes and behavior on Rodrigues.
Kim teaching about bats in Rodrigues school in 1995
Rodrigues fruit bat exhibit at the Zoo.
Andrea met us a new Rodrigues airport. No more single room airport that I remember from my previous flights in and out of Rodrigues, there now was a proper, if small, airport. As we drove from the airport (on the "wrong" side of the road) to our first destination—MWF headquarters at Solitude—I was also amazed at how much improved the roads are on Rodrigues. The main roads are properly paved, lined, and roomy enough for two vehicles to comfortably pass each other without one going off the road. Most people still walk, bike, use a motorbike, or the bus to get from one place to another but there are significantly more cars too. For an island that is approximately 5 X 7 miles, Rodrigues is home to a hefty 35,000 people. With such a dense population, many of whom still rely on subsistence agriculture for at least part of their livelihood, the land gets used up quickly. That is part of the challenge for MWF and REEP - to balance the needs of Rodriguans with the need to maintain the environment. And like many other places in the world, there is no magical answer.
On the left, one of the older roads in the capital of Port Mathurin, and on the right, one of the newer roads.
When we arrived at Solitude, situated in the forested valley of Cascade Pigeon, home to a large Rodrigues fruit bat roost, we saw some of this balance at work. All of the large trees around the building had been cut down. My gut reaction was not positive, and many on Rodrigues feel the same way, but once I understood the rationale, I fully appreciated why the trees were cut. The endemic forests of Rodrigues were almost completely destroyed following Rodrigues's discovery by humans over 400 years ago so that today almost all of the plants on Rodrigues are introduced from other parts of the world. One of the unanticipated impacts of these invasive plant species is depletion of the water table. Trees like Eucalyptus
are very "thirsty" and require a lot of water. The cumulative impact of so many water-loving eucalyptus trees on the island has exacerbated Rodrigues' water challenges, leaving plants, animals, and people to face frequent water shortages. On Rodrigues, every house has its own water tank and water is delivered to it from the central authority only once every 2-3 weeks, depending on conditions. In between, folks must ration water to ensure they don't run low and if they do, they have to buy trucks of water that come from dubious sources. Needless to say, much of the water on Rodrigues is not potable, including most of the water in people's homes. In order to use it, it must be boiled or folks must buy bottled water. Potable water is something many Americans completely take for granted but in places like Rodrigues, it is a limiting resource and very much on everyone's mind.
After saying hi to all MWF staff at Solitude and meeting Liliana for the first time in person, we took off for Grand Montagne, one of the two nature reserves on Rodrigues. MWF co-manages Grand Montagne with the Forestry Department. Grand Montagne has been the site of a massive reforestation effort over the last 20 years. Through sheer hard work, MWF and Forestry have removed all of the invasive plants from large sections of Grand Montagne and replanted endemic trees in their place. When I was on Grand Montagne in 1995, the first plants had just gone in the ground and were no higher than my knee. Now, almost 20 years later, they have matured into a forest that resembles those encountered by the first explorers to the island. Endemic pandanus and palm trees grow in profusion creating a canopy under which endemic understory plants are flourishing. And in Grand Montagne, the Rodrigues warbler and fody are also making a comeback. Preferring to nest in endemic plants with which they have co-evolved, these birds that were so rare when I was here in 1995 that I never even saw a warbler, are clearly benefitting from the effort to restore the forest.
Poster produced by MWF showing the three remaining endemic vertebrates on Rodrigues: Rodrigues fody, Rodrigues warbler, and Rodrigues fruit bat.
While MWF and Forestry have begun to have success replanting endemic forests in Rodrigues, it is slow and painstaking work. There are so few specimens of some of the endemic plant species left that new plants must be carefully propagated at the MWF nursery from seeds or cuttings collected from wild plants and then transferred to the forest. Using this method, MWF and Forestry have planted hundreds of thousands of young plants in Grand Montagne and the other nature reserve on Rodrigues, Anse Quitor.
One of Rodrigues’ critically endangered endemic plants being propagated and replanted by MWF staff.
After Grand Montagne, we stopped in Port Mathurin, Rodrigues capital, and largest town for a bite to eat. Andrea took us to one of her favorite takeout places and we sampled the local fare. I jumped at the chance to eat octopus salad on baguette - one of my favorite foods from my previous visits. Rodrigues is ringed by a large coral reef and this reef is source of a lot of the protein for Rodriguans. Octopus and fish are the common sea creatures eaten on the island. In addition, there are LOTS of cattle, goats, and chickens that provide protein for Rodriguans. In fact, Rodriguans export these animals to Mauritius for consumption there too. Domestic livestock are a necessary part of the Rodriguan economy but they are also tough on the environment. Domestic animals, along with human activity, were the cause of most of the wave of extinctions that decimated Rodrigues after its discovery by humans. The endemic plants and animals - some so abundant that early explorers reported that the entire island smelled like Rodrigues fruit bats and that the giant tortoises were so numerous you could walk across the island on their backs - quickly either completely disappeared or became extremely scarce. Following the two giant tortoise species into extinction was a large species of flightless bird - close relative of the nearby Mauritian dodo - the solitaire, a giant gecko, two species of doves/pigeons, a parrot, an owl, and many other species lost to history because they left no fossil record and they weren't described by early visitors to Rodrigues. Unfortunately, Rodrigues is not unique in this regard. Oceanic islands are often vulnerable to similar chains of events once they are colonized by humans. Flora and fauna on these islands have evolved for millions of years in isolation and they are unprepared to face the predation pressures of humans and domestic animals. They have no defense or other coping mechanisms and they eventually disappear - some shockingly quickly. The tortoises and solitaire on Rodrigues, so numerous when the island was discovered, were especially vulnerable to hunting and they disappeared in less than a century.
Fishermen on coral reef ringing Rodrigues.
Domestic animals roam almost everywhere on Rodrigues.
Display at Grand Montagne interpretive center showing some of the extinct endemic vertebrates of Rodrigues including the Solitaire, giant tortoise, parakeet, and pigeon.
After our quick stop in Port Mathurin, we headed back to Solitude to pick up Liliana for a village bat talk. In most of the villages around the island, the government has built a village center where people can gather for continuing education and social reasons. The buildings are basic concrete block structures—as are all homes on Rodrigues these days—built to effectively weather the ravages of cyclones— and they're a great resource for the communities and the sites of many of MWF's outreach activities. Today, Liliana brought along a laptop and screen so that she could show the villagers a film on the bats that MWF has just produced with a French film company. While English is the official language on Mauritius and Rodrigues, a Creole version of French is what is most commonly spoken. My French is middling, at best, so I caught about half of what was being said in the film but I was able to appreciate all of the gorgeous footage of the bats. After the film, Liliana led a discussion about the bats, followed by question/answer. Many of the villager’s questions focused around how to control the bats. The ironic situation on Rodrigues now is that having worked successfully for many years to protect the bats and increase their numbers, MWF now has the problem of how to help people and bats live together. The bat population estimate at the last all-island count conducted by MWF was close to 20,000! What an amazing success story. There are bats everywhere on Rodrigues - at night as I sat on the porch of our guest house, I could hear bats in the trees – feeding on mangoes and papayas- and the occasional chatter as the bats chided each other over feeding territory.
Liliana teaching at a community center (MWF photo).
Rodrigues fruit bat in flight
Rodrigues fruit bat foraging
We were fortunate to stay in a home-based guest house while on Rodrigues. Many families add on to their homes and often multiple generations live in a single home. Our rooms were on the second floor and used to be the home to the owner’s daughter, her husband, and their son. They had since built a house of their own and now their rooms were rented to guests. Along with room, we were fortunate to get breakfast and dinner so we got home cooking and local fare. Our first dinner was fresh fish with a little piment vert on the side to add a bit of kick. Rodriguans grow their own particularly hot green chili pepper that when ground makes up the majority of piment vert. A little dab is enough to clear you sinuses for a week! Tim really enjoys spicy food and he was in gastronomic heaven on Rodrigues where piment vert accompanies every meal.
Woman in the Pt. Mathurin market selling Rodrigues green chilis.
Tim and I are waiting in the brand new (two-week-old!) airport in Mauritius for our flight to Rodrigues.
Some more background on how the Philly Zoo became a champion for endangered bats half way around the world. First, it's not unusual for us to support wildlife conservation both at home and abroad. That's one of our primary missions as a zoo and conservation organization. But why bats and why this species? Bats are certainly not considered one of the "charismatic megavertebrates" (big mammals) but are more than charismatic enough for me. With close to 1000 species, bats are one of the most diverse mammal groups—second only to rodents.
Bats are found all over the world except in areas of extreme cold and have evolved a wide range of appearances and feeding habits, from the mega-fruit bat group (of which the Rodrigues fruit bat is a medium-sized member) to the tiny bumblebee bat of Thailand (no larger than an adult thumb). There are bats that eat insects, bats that eat leaves, bats that eat other animals (frogs, fish, birds, small mammals, etc.), bats that eat blood, bats that eat nectar, and bats that eat fruit. Rodrigues fruit bats are fruit and leaf specialists.