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Young Nigerian researcher goes to bat against forest fires

Iroro Tanshi with harp trap at Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi and Benneth Obitte.

Iroro Tanshi with harp trap at Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi and Benneth Obitte.

  • The discovery in 2016 of a rare bat never before seen in Nigeria sparked a campaign to protect its habitat from the threat of forest fires, typically started by farmers clearing land or hunters dropping lit cigarettes in the vegetation.
  • Through their Small Mammal Conservation Organization (SMACON) and its Zero Fire Campaign, biologists Iroro Tanshi and Benneth Obitte worked with local communities around the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary to end the burning and educate on bat conservation.
  • No fires were recorded in the region in the past three years, except for a single incident last month, as the campaign continues to instill “the consciousness of how big a deal this is,” Tanshi says.
  • In recognition of her work and dedication, Tanshi was named among the winners of this year’s Future for Nature Foundation’s awards for young conservationists; she says the prize money will go toward protection and further studies of the short-tailed roundleaf bat.

As she peered into the collection chamber of her harp trap, Iroro Tanshi instinctively knew she had caught something peculiar. It was small, with large ears, and a button-like patch on its nose. A thrill of excitement surged through her as she pulled out her identification guide.

It was definitely not the familiar Noack’s roundleaf bat (Hipposideros ruber) she trapped every night in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in southeast Nigeria’s Cross River state during that 2016 season.

Paging through the guide, she quickly realized she had just trapped a short-tailed roundleaf bat (Hipposideros curtus). It had been 43 years since the last reported capture in the wild. And this was the first record of this species in Nigeria.

“I struggled to sleep that night,” said the 35-year-old biologist.

Buoyed by her discovery, Tanshi and her team of more than half a dozen field assistants combed through 45 caves in the Afi sanctuary and the nearby Okwangwo division of Cross River National Park intermittently over the next three years. They found a single cave roost in Okwangwo, harboring fewer than 20 individuals of these insectivorous bats.

Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the short-tailed roundleaf bat was previously known to occur only in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, where some of the known roosts have since been destroyed.

“This is one of Africa’s rarest bats, occupying a geographical area of less than 200,000 square kilometer [77,200 square miles], within which it probably occupies a range of less than 2,000 km² — the reason being that it is patchily and unevenly distributed within its range,” Ara Monadjem of the University of Eswatini’s Department of Biological Sciences told Mongabay in an email interview.

In Nigeria, the species occurs on the Cameroon-Nigeria border, a biodiversity hotspot threatened by extensive illegal hunting, agricultural expansion and illegal logging. Both the 100-km² (40-mi²) Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the 640-km² (250-mi²) Okwangwo division are home to the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), and the grey-necked rockfowl (Picathartes oreas).

Okwangwo Division, Cross River National Park, Nigeria. Image by Charles Emogor via Flickr (CC BY-SA-4.0)
Okwangwo Division, Cross River National Park, Nigeria. Image by Charles Emogor via Wikicommons (CC BY-SA-4.0)

Bats under fire

During her 2016 survey, Tanshi and Benneth Obitte, a Nigerian bat specialist who was collaborating on the project, observed that — like elsewhere in West Africa — hunters targeted larger fruit bat species like the cave-roosting Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) for food.

Barely two weeks after her initial discovery, Tanshi’s team was threatened by a huge forest fire advancing furiously toward their camp. As they evacuated, she vowed to protect the H. curtus roost in Nigeria from similar forest fires, which can destroy foraging habitat.

“You cannot see something like this in dire need and ignore it,” Tanshi said.

She and Obitte launched the Small Mammal Conservation Organization (SMACON) to protect bat species and other small-sized mammals. Their first port of call was to the Buanchor communities who live along the edge of the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Farmers here use fire to clear farmland before the rainy season and to remove shading trees from their farms, but this occasionally spreads into the sanctuary, according to Kyrien Didang, a native of Buanchor and chair of the Afi Forest management committee. Forest fires are also sparked by hunters carelessly disposing of smoldering cigarettes.

The villagers already had customary penalties for anyone found to have caused a forest fire. Tanshi held discussions with local chiefs and village youths about preventing fires in the first place, and organized a large town hall meeting in early 2017, at which the villagers agreed to a written local forest law, with a system of monitoring and implementation and a clear set of penalties ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 naira ($13-$52).

SMACON immediately started a Zero Wildfire Campaign to bring bat conservation education to schools in Buanchor and promote precautions such as summoning owners of nearby farms before a burn, in case their help is needed to contain it; warnings to hunters to stop smoking in the forest; and preventing villagers from clearing new farmland near the sanctuary.

Copies of the law were distributed to households, and Didang told Mongabay that it is frequently read out and explained during the monthly town assemblies. The town crier also occasionally issues warnings to villagers.

In the three years since the campaign started, there had been no outbreaks of fire until a recent incident last month. Didang said investigations by the villagers point to a recklessly discarded cigarette.

SMACON has also trained rangers to document fire outbreaks and file regular fire reports to park authorities to instill “the consciousness of how big a deal this is,” says Tanshi, who also lectures at Nigeria’s University of Benin.

Short-tailed roundleaf bat (Hipposiderus curtus). Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi/SMACON.

Promoting bat conservation can be challenging, especially as bats often attract ambivalent feelings: they are seen either as witches and persecuted out of fear, or as clean mammals valuable in good-luck charms.

“Most people (not just Africans) are suspicious of bats, but when given a chance to learn about these creatures in a safe setting, people usually react with awe,” Monadjem, a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Bat Specialist Group, said in his email.

“When people (and especially children) are given the opportunity to learn about bats, they often change their minds about these creatures. And this is the most important ingredient for conservation: it needs the support of people.”

Monadjem called for stronger laws and enforcement to protect bats, especially important roosting sites. But he is also worried that Africa desperately needs more bat biologists to study new species, conduct ecological studies, and work as outreach instructors.

SMACON hopes to fill that gap in local capacity through its Nigerian Bat Research Project (NBRP) in collaboration with local and international institutions. The NBRP has launched a research fellowship for Nigerian postgraduate students and developed the Nigeria Database of Bat Records, which tracks all verifiable bat occurrences since the first such record was made in in 1862.

“The database will become a valuable resource to local scientists working to understand the incredible diversity of bats in Nigeria but also contribute to regional and continent level investigations into Afrotropical bat assemblages,” Tanshi told Mongabay.

Iroro Tanshi with field team at Buanchor, Nigeria. Image courtesty Iroro Tanshi and Benneth Obitte.
Iroro Tanshi with field team at a ranger station in Cross River National Park. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi/SMACON.

Sustaining the project

“It is only by working with and embracing the local people that sustainable conservation will be achieved,” said Dave Waldien, the coordinator of the IUCN’s Red List Authority (Old World Bats) and associate professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

“We need to support [local communities] by helping to ensure national and international development is supporting and empowering them versus giving them few choices. Resolving major threats to critical habitats will take both knowledge, resources, and the courage to act both locally and globally.”

In recognition of her work and dedication, Tanshi was named among the winners of this year’s Future for Nature Foundation’s awards for young conservationists.

“The funds from the award will be used to protect the roost in Okwangwo, identify additional roosts and establish the status of other previously known caves in the species range,” she told Mongabay, adding that the Zero Wildfire Campaign will be expanded to other communities and more local students will be trained on bat field survey skills.

Iroro Tanshi with harp trap. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi and Benneth Obitte.
Iroro Tanshi with harp trap. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi/SMACON.


Kamins, A., Restif, O., Ntiamoa-Baidu, Y., Suu-Ire, R., Hayman, D., Cunningham, A., … Rowcliffe, J. (2011). Uncovering the fruit bat bushmeat commodity chain and the true extent of fruit bat hunting in Ghana, West Africa. Biological Conservation, 144(12), 3000-3008. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.09.003

Banner image: Iroro Tanshi with harp trap. Image courtesy Iroro Tanshi/SMACON.

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