Kasanka National Park, Zambia – As the red sun sets over a remote part of central Zambia province, the sky suddenly fills with the sound of flapping wings and then turns black.
An estimated 10 million straw-colored fruit bats fill the evening air.
The huge colony – the largest mammal migration in the world, according to experts at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology – is made up of Africa’s second largest fruit bat.
During the day, bats sleep in the thick swamp along the Musola River, part of Kasanka National Park, which is home to more than 470 species of birds and 100 mammals. As the sun sets, they set off in search of berries and wild fruits, traveling about 50 km (32 miles) and return to their roost in the marshes at dawn.
The show only takes place twice a year, between October and December. But experts say near-endangered bats, essential for restoring Africa’s forests, are in danger.
The straw-colored fruit bats, nicknamed “the gardeners of Africa”, are important for the regeneration of forest forests and native fruit trees.
They travel thousands of kilometers as a migratory species, but much is still unknown about their migratory routes or why they congregate in such large numbers in Kasanka.
But as pristine areas and national parks are threatened, their habitats are disappearing.
Protect the park
James Mwanza, community outreach manager at Kasanka Trust, which manages the park, says commercial farming is the main threat to the natural resources on which bats and the communities surrounding the park depend.
Already 10,000 hectares (24,711 acres) of virgin forest within a 5 km (3.2 mile) buffer zone around the park closed to development in the Kafinda Game Management Area, have been cleared for commercial agriculture, according to Mwanza.
“In the game management area, humans and animals coexist, but we guarantee a buffer zone,” he said, where there is supposed to be, “no farms, no settlements, no ‘activity”.
This is to prevent diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease from spreading from wild animals and to protect the forest from illegal deforestation or poaching.
“But that’s not the way it is done,” Mwanza said.
To prevent illegal deforestation and encroachment, Kasanka Trust worked with the local community to enable them to legally own 60,000 hectares (148,263 acres) of forest surrounding the park.
Churchill Musungwa is a volunteer community ranger, as well as a farmer. After seeing the forest around her destroyed house, her community was supported by Kasanka Trust to legally own the land.
“If we have no trees, no forest, it’s not just us the people, but even the birds, the animals – we are suffering at the same time,” he said.
Nyambe Kalaluka, head of environmental education at the trust, said other threats include poaching, illegal fishing, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture.
“We have tried to mitigate this through community forests and other initiatives,” he said. “Around Kasanka National Park… people mainly derive their livelihood from the forest.
“So if they protect their community forest, then it’s easier for them to be stewards of their children. The first step is to engage the community, we talk to [them] on the importance of having an area that is in their name, and an area that they can use as a community. They can be responsible because they can feel they own the forest. “
“ Alarming ” deforestation
Deforestation is a major problem in Zambia. The Lusaka Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) estimates that the country loses between 250,000 and 300,000 hectares (617,763 to 741,316 acres) of forest each year to fuel wood and charcoal production and land clearing. for agriculture.
With Zambia heavily dependent on hydropower, a recent drought has exacerbated the demand for fuel, with around 90 percent of the population relying on wood for energy.
Combined with increasing population and overexploitation of agricultural land in some areas, human migration in search of areas of virgin forests such as Kasanka is a natural consequence, explained Davion Gumbo of CIFOR.
“The [deforestation] the trend is on the rise, ”he said. “It is not only deforestation, but degradation… linked to the qualitative loss of the forest. The loss of these materials has had an effect in terms of biodiversity, ”Gumbo added, citing agricultural expansion and opening up the forest to plant crops as the main causes.
“We would like to see communities get involved and benefit from their participation. Communities… must be educated… to see the attributes of these resources beyond the mere sight of firewood and charcoal.
The lack of government funding for law enforcement to protect natural resources, commercial interests as well as poverty-based activities such as illegal charcoal production is a major challenge, Gumbo said.
“When it comes to the dollar or the kwacha to support these activities on the ground, this is where there has been some reluctance.”