The group, set to roll out a ferry service from Caticlan port to the island, sought to develop a road connecting the property to the beach. This has impacted the bat population significantly, FFF says. “This site is where the bats normally roost and nurture their pups (babies) as nursery trees.”

The company was fined by the environment department. But a year later, when Boracay reopened after the closure period, MME launched its ferry service that offers a more comfortable ride from the mainland of Aklan to Boracay’s beaches.

On the main island of Panay, wind farms pose an additional threat to Boracay’s flying foxes. The wind farms, in operation since 2018, lie directly in the flight path of the bats, FFF says, and are killing them. “Dead bats were found regularly on its grounds.”

Back on Boracay, the stresses on bats persisted even during the closure. Some of the local population of 40,000 people, whose livelihoods depend heavily on tourism, were reportedly catching and eating the flying foxes to make ends meet during the closure, FFF says.

‘Why the hesitation?’

The status of Boracay’s bats prompted the environment department to create a management plan for all the bat species in the Philippines, which the department says is already in the pipeline.

There are a total of 79 species of bats in the Philippines, of which 38 are endemic. Twelve of these endemic species, including 11 fruit bats, are threatened, says Anson Tagtag of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau.

“We are going to develop a management plan so that we will be guided on what types of activities to be undertaken,” Tagtag said in a statement. “We will be able measure how we progress throughout the years, and we will see and connect how bat conservation will contribute to human well-being.”

It was also FFF’s surveys that drove DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu to order the Boracay task force to come out with a policy to delineate certain areas of the island as critical habitats for flying foxes.

It’s the same recommendation given by pioneering bat researchers Harvey John Garcia and Ma. Renee P. Lorica, who conducted a study of the island’s flying mammals to seek out the patterns of the bats’ roosting sites.

General flight patterns of Boracay’s large flying foxes. Map source: “Patterns of Roost Site Use of the Large Flying Foxes of Boracay Project Final Technical Report” by Harvey John D. Garcia and Ma. Renee P. Lorica, 2007

With the changes in the island’s forest coverage and the threats bats face due to tourism-related developments, the researchers recommended reviewing the island’s existing bat roosting areas and fast-tracking the designation of these areas as critical habitats. They also concluded that one of the best ways to protect the island’s flying foxes would be to adopt the golden-crowned flying fox as the island’s flagship species.

“This will not only promote awareness to conserve the critically endangered bats of Boracay but will also promote local pride as an added attraction for the tourists,” the researchers say.

But the much-anticipated designation as a critical habitat, however, has been slow to materialize. Species-specific studies have been conducted as far back as 2014, yet the government has dithered on the prospect, FFF says.

Once declared a critical habitat, the ecological management of the resort island will fall under the local government. During the island’s closure, however, local officials including Aklan Mayor Ceciro Cawaling and former Malay mayor John Yap faced criminal and administrative charges for grave misconduct leading to the environmental degradation of the island. Cawaling was later dismissed from office.

“In 2018, the DENR announced that a declaration of a critical habitat would be made,” FFF says in a statement. “While it has been very vigilant in implementing other initiatives, such as road widening and [widening easement zones] on the beach, why the hesitation from the government to declare a critical habitat for a worldwide endangered species?”

Local residents participate in a massive cleanup drive on Boracay Island on June 27, 2018, as part of the 6-month rehabilitation program to bring back the tourist destination’s beauty. Image by Jay Jacalan for the Department of Agriculture (DA) courtesy of the Philippine News Agency (PNA).

Ending rehab

With the declaration of a critical habitat in the island making little progress, the coronavirus pandemic has piled on more pressure, forcing cancellations of official meetings.

Livino Duran, the regional DENR assistant director for technical division, says the proposal is still under evaluation. “I was told that the committee has approved guidelines on the said proposal as part of the process for the declaration of certain area of Boracay a critical habitat,” Duran tells Mongabay.

However, the task force has yet to schedule a discussion of the proposal, says Natividad Bernardino of the Boracay Inter-Agency Management Rehabilitation Group (BIARMG). The priority, the group says, is to examine the possibility of extending the task force’s operation for another year and a half.

Its term was set to end this May.

As time ticks for the flying foxes, the FFF has compelled the government and its task force to focus on Boracay’s endangered wildlife. “Roost site protection is crucial for the bats’ survival,” the group says in a statement. “Why so slow in protecting them?”

Additional reporting by Leilani Chavez.

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Banner image of a large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus). Image by Wilhelma Kalong-Flughund via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)  

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