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Dave Bennett: The Tropical Bats of Sabah

Dave studies the impacts of habitat fragmentation on the diet of insectivorous bats at the S.A.F.E project in Sabah, Borneo. He says that we all know primary forest is the important, but what we really need to know is how useful are the scrappy little bits that are leftover from logging cycles, the bits that may soon be cleared for oil palm plantation. Find out how Dave is doing that in the article below…

dave_bennett

Name: Dave Bennett

Species: Bats

Location: Sabah, Borneo

Twitter: @hammerheadbat

Dave studies the impacts of habitat fragmentation on the diet of insectivorous bats at the S.A.F.E project in Sabah, Borneo.

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NatureSpy is a non-profit organisation that aims to research and protect wildlife whilst engaging local communities, primarily using camera traps. NatureSpy supports Discover Conservation. Find out more...

Everyone has a different story, so how did you get into bats and conservation?

I got into my branch of conservation whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. I had the amazing opportunity to study Caiman ecology in the Peruvian Amazon for my dissertation and whilst I was spending the nights out under the milky way, searching for these amazing creatures I fell in love with the idea of devoting my life to understanding rainforest ecosystems and using this scientific understanding to help protect them. So I came back from Peru, changed to a conservation degree, started learning Spanish, whilst signing up for any field research I could get onto. It was clear that to break into conservation research I needed to gain skills that might give me an edge in this extremely competitive field (loads of people want to go work with animals in the jungle for some reason, who’d have thought it?!)

These days I’m studying for my PhD, using DNA barcoding to look at the diet of bats in Borneo. I never had a precise plan for my area of scientific expertise, but this ties up my background in dietary research (for the caiman study) with molecular experience that I gained in my masters degree. I also spent a summer along the way studying the bats that live in the UK’s churches: Britain’s conservationists definitely need to focus on our own wildlife as well as the stuff overseas.

ABOVE: A tiny portion of the bats Dave collected in Borneo. See, they’re cute really…
"…what we really need to know is how useful are the scrappy little bits that are leftover from logging cycles…"
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NatureSpy is a non-profit organisation that aims to research and protect wildlife whilst engaging local communities, primarily using camera traps. NatureSpy supports Discover Conservation. Find out more...

Rather than primary rainforest, you work in degraded forest…

The sad truth about most tropical rainforest in southeast Asia is that almost all of it is degraded in some way. There is still some pristine stuff left, but almost all of it is in parks: that’s why it remained pristine. I work as part of a group called LOMBOK, who specialise in the study of human-modified tropical forest. In conservation and ecology there can be a bit of a fetishism of primary undisturbed forest, which can be counterproductive. Yes: we all know primary forest is the best, but what we really need to know is how useful are the scrappy little bits that are leftover from logging cycles, the bits that may soon be cleared for oil palm plantation. And this is a genuinely important question; should we protect these areas or are conservation’s efforts (and cash) better spent elsewhere? There’s quite a few of us in the team involved in this work, looking at everything from soil microbiota all the way up to the large mammal species such as elephants and wild cattle.

So how do bats fit in with this picture?

Within this group I look at the relationships between bats and their prey in pristine and degraded forest. We know from previous studies that around 90% of Bornean mammal species persist in degraded forest, but we know little about their abundance and how long they’re actually likely to persist. Through my work on the bat’s diets I am able to look at their potential longevity in degraded forests: a bat species may currently persist in a logged habitat, but if its diet is much more restricted than we would typically expect, then it has a much poorer chance of still being found in the area ten years down the line.

TOP:  The typical misty dawn of Danum Valley field station, one of the most magical places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. BOTTOM: Black and yellow broadbill (Eurylaimus ochromalus). Affectionately nicknamed the ‘exploding bird’ around camp as it’s call is a deranged accelerating monotone that sounds like a bird thats about to pop.
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" Some people favour an approach of simply boycotting palm oil and shouting about how bad it is, but I personally doubt that’ll really have any beneficial effect. "

So what does the future look like for your degraded patches of forest?

The biggest threat to my patch is arguably the conversion of forest to oil palm, which though happening across southeast Asia is mostly taking place in Malaysia and Indonesia. This conversion of land to agriculture is a deceptively complex issue, and I feel that as conservationists we have to engage with the local peoples and oil palm companies to try and get the best possible outcome. Some people favour an approach of simply boycotting palm oil and shouting about how bad it is, but I personally doubt that’ll really have any beneficial effect. Its undeniable that the crop is lifting countries out of poverty, and this is having a huge impact on people’s lives. Combined with the fact that it’s a huge amount more productive than any other oil-producing crop, I doubt that palm oil is an issue that will go away. So in my eyes it’s best for conservationists to at least be in the room when discussing these issues, rather than stomping and shouting outside of it.

With this in mind certification projects like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil have been launched, who provide eco-certification in exchange for plantations doing things such as setting aside some of their land to be left for nature. If research such as mine proves that these areas of forest have conservation value, perhaps we can start trying to create a network of wildlife corridors throughout Borneo. My hope is that my findings show that this is a good idea for both bats and their prey, and that this can then be used to help to integrate conservation and agriculture.

TOP: Dave handling a trefoil horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus trifoliatus). Also, after too many drinks in camp sometimes people do silly things like shaving their heads into mohawks. BOTTOM: Angle-headed lizard (Gonocephalus bornensis). We disturbed it whilst rooting through leaf litter and so until I saw the photo later I was sure the mud and twig on it’s nose was a mini rhino-horn
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NatureSpy is a non-profit organisation that aims to research and protect wildlife whilst engaging local communities, primarily using camera traps. NatureSpy supports Discover Conservation. Find out more...
" Certainly some species will go extinct, but I guess we conservationists need to realise that our aim right now is minimizing extinctions, not preventing them all…"

People always ask, ‘so what do you actually do’? So Dave, can you tell us about an average day in the rainforest?

I wake in the morning in the guys dorm (affectionately called the ‘man-cave’), where at any point in time there’s about 5-20 mattresses on the floor, alongside far too many sweaty shoes, mouldy clothing, assorted rats and creepy-crawlies. After a quick breakfast of rice we head off into the forest to check on our bat traps, to see what we caught at dawn. I take various measurements and a small sample of wing-tissue from each bat, and then hopefully they’ll leave me a poo to study back in the UK using DNA barcoding. Bats learn where traps have been placed very quickly, so we then have to haul six traps (10-15kg each) up and down various muddy tropical slopes before setting them up again, which certainly toughens you up after a few weeks! Afternoons are typically spent in camp, eating a tonne more rice in between data entry, or lazing about in a hammock if there’s time. Then we go back into the forest in the evenings to check on the evening’s catch, before going to bed and starting the same routine the next day.

Faced with all these challenges, are you optimistic for the future in Borneo?

I feel that this is the hardest question for me to answer: yes and no, I guess. Between changing land-use, climate change and the booming of earth’s population, it’s undeniable that we’re in the midst of the earth’s sixth mass-extinction and wildlife worldwide is suffering for it. How well Borneo fares in this tale really remains to be seen.

It’s clearly important that Southeast Asian countries improve their economic status, as this is likely the best route to improve the quality of life for their people. The issue is combining this with a conservation ethic somehow. I think if we can convince them to protect certain forest areas in a well-planned, joined-up approach, then the future for Borneo could be fairly bright. Certainly some species will go extinct, but I guess we conservationists need to realise that our aim right now is minimizing extinctions, not preventing them all. Whilst a nice goal, that seems a bit too unattainable for my liking. Instead we could have the overwhelming majority of species remaining in a network of forest, with islands of pristine rainforest for scientists and tourists, and corridors of still-valuable logged forest connecting them.

So it seems to me that the future for my area is in the hands of governments and those who deal with them. If they agree to undertake development and land-conversion projects in a manner that is well thought out environmentally as well as economically, we could all have cause to be optimistic for the future. It looks like the Malaysian government is onside for this, now the ball is in their court… In the meantime we’ll continue collecting evidence for the use (or not) of various places for conservation.

TOP: A harp trap, used to catch bats via parallel rows of fishing line stretching from top to bottom which the bats fly into. However rain beading on the strings makes the trap easier for the bats to sense, so we ‘waterproof’ them with umbrellas and cable ties. BOTTOM: Sunrise over Danum Valley.
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Lastly, your top tips for aspiring conservationists?

1) Physical fitness is an absolute must. I write this having always despised sports as a child and spent most of my life as a typical unfit, asthmatic mess. I then spent a few days working in rainforest and realised that needed to dramatically change. I’ve just ran my first marathon and that’s certainly no coincidence: I find that regular running is the best way to keep my cardio up when back in the UK, so that the first day in the forest doesn’t kill you.

2) Learn where your mental and physical limits are and be prepared to push at them, but never dramatically overstep them. You’ll need to be prepared to regularly be totally exhausted, but you also need to know exactly what counts as too much. You’re no use to your research with a broken leg or suffering from a breakdown, so stay away from the macho-posturing and try to take care of yourself where possible.

3) If you plan on tropical research anywhere then you’ll have to learn languages. I began by learning Spanish, figuring that it meant I could then potentially work in most of latin America. I’m now learning Malay: some of the local assistants don’t speak English, and even if they do it’s certainly more polite to let them speak their language in their country. It’ll make you more friends, open doors, and make you come across of less of an arse.

4) Always have a GPS with you! Forest trails look different at night, and its far easier to get lost on them than you might expect: it happens to us all. When you suddenly have no idea which direction your camp is in, it can be very easy to end up lost to the forest. (If that actually happens, find a stream and then follow it down. You’ll hit a town eventually, but its certainly a fate best avoided…)

5) Get excited about stuff! After a while you can become a bit uninspired by seeing the same stuff day in, day out, and forget what a privileged position you’re in; it can all start to seem a bit mundane. Stop: look at whats in your hand. It’s a freaky looking tropical animal! 15-year old you would have killed to be doing what you’re doing now, and its pretty damn cool. Enjoy it.

 

Thanks Dave!

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