This #WildWork Wednesday we are highlighting the work of Australian conservation scientist Sophie ‘Topa’ Petit, and her efforts to educate people about the plight of Fiji’s endangered bats – Fiji’s only native mammals. October is ‘Bat Appreciation Month’, and sadly five of the six bats species in Fiji are threatened mainly due to loss of habitat.

Sophie is a recipient of the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund Small Grants Programme, and with her grant she has created children’s book ‘Vakaruru and the Bananas’ to educate Fiji’s youth about the bat’s importance in the eco-system, teaching them that everything is connected and that bats are responsible for pollinating trees and dispersing seeds. This book has been distributed to all 736 primary schools in Fiji, meaning every child should have a chance to read this book and understand the significance of each creature playing its vital role in the world.

As a wildlife ecologist in Australia, how did you come to learn about Fiji’s wildlife and decide to help?

It’s a strange story.  My graduating Honours student at the time at the University of South Australia, Annette Scanlon, an excellent bat scientist, was keen on doing a Ph.D. with me.  She had little experience overseas, and I think it’s very important for someone with a Ph.D. to be well travelled and understand other ways of living and thinking.  It broadens one’s mind.  So we chose a country in the Pacific with a good university (and herbarium!), and interest in ecology and conservation, and of course with very interesting bats.  I wanted Annette to know more than bat ecology and to develop expertise with plants.  Fiji’s four flying-fox species created wonderful opportunities to study the role of bats in rainforest health.  I went to Fiji to help Annette get started, and later to help her in the field.  I returned a couple of times to conduct a project there as well.  Since then Dr. Annette Scanlon has become an internationally renowned bat/insect/plant scientist!  It was never a question of whether we would help or not… our research was designed to help.  We are both conservation scientists.

What are some of the issues Fiji’s native bats are facing in the wild?

Five of six bat species in Fiji are threatened, and the main threat is habitat loss, including loss of roosts.  The two insectivorous species, which are in tremendous strife, live in caves, as does the blossom bat.  Caves are affected by land clearing or development around them.  Hydrology and structure may be compromised.  In addition, caves are visited more commonly now and bats are collected directly in caves in several areas, because people consume them.  Cats appear to prey on bats as well, and I’m not sure of the role of introduced mongooses, but they are possible predators. 

The native rainforest is essential to the people of Fiji and desertification is associated with poverty.  However, many villages are very poor and may open their land to more agriculture, or even mining.  A major issue, which Vakaruru and the Bananas attempts to address in part, is lack of awareness.  Most people do not know yet that bats are not only mammals, but also the only native mammals of Fiji, and that they perform essential functions for the rainforest, including the productions of goods that people use.  Bats are often considered food and/or crop pests, but the ecosystem services they perform are not known.  It is difficult to achieve conservation when the community doesn’t understand what needs to be conserved.  Conservation is a human construct; only when humans care will they conserve.

Why are bats so important to Fiji’s ecosystem and what is being done to help them?

Two bat species eat insects, presumably including pests of agricultural crops and insects that could cause diseases in humans.  The blossom bat feeds only on flowers and so is a very important pollinator of rainforest trees, as are the other three flying foxes, which also disperse seeds for the regeneration of the rainforest.  Annette Scanlon is the lead author of a paper that shows the crucial role of bats in the maintenance of plants that are significant not only for the production of timber and food, but also culturally and medicinally.

Fiji is lucky to have a local NGO looking after terrestrial conservation:  NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV).  The organisation’s work is crucial for nature conservation in Fiji, and I urge everyone to support it and become a member, because the conditions are not easy with very limited funding in Fiji.  NFMV is involved in various nature conservation projects, including bat-related ones.  In particular, the organisation has been working with a community of Vanua Levu to secure the future of the only known maternity cave of an endangered insectivorous bat species.  Funding from Bat Conservation International has assisted them, and they received an Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund grant in the past.  Other NGOs, the National Trust of Fiji, Colo-i-Suva Forest Park, Colo-i-Suva Rainforest Eco Resort, the village of Waisali and several other village chiefs, and the South Pacific Herbarium have supported our research as well by facilitating access to information or people and sites.  No one has any money, but people do their best! Another priority is the conservation of a very special flying fox, one of the most endangered bats in the world, which lives only in the cloud forest of Taveuni.  The conservation of this bat can only take place if its habitat is protected.  I’m very proud to have been associated with remarkable scientists and other people who are trying to help the bats of Fiji.  Resources are scant but we are not giving up.  I am an associate research scientist at NFMV and both Annette and I help with whatever way we can.

What is the main message of Vakaruru and the Bananas and what do you hope it will achieve for Fiji’s youth?

I often promote conservation as a private citizen as well as a researcher, but using a fictional story was a new thing to me!  I chose to present an adventure of the best known bat species in Fiji, so that all children could relate to it.  All have seen it, most have not seen the other bat species.  Although this large flying fox (Pteropus tonganus) is not threatened, information on all the other bat species is presented at the end of the book.  Those two end pages about the bats of Fiji, “our friends” are very important to introduce the more cryptic species to children.  Vakaruru is a difficult sale because many Fijians love to eat bats!  This species is also noisy and likes to eat breadfruit and other foods that Fijians like.  However, by showing that this bat pollinates trees and disperses seeds, and that “everything is connected”, I hope to encourage children to think about bats in a positive way, as ecosystem services providers.  Explaining pollination to adults is tricky, but not as much as explaining it to children!  It is a bit of a challenge and one passage is somewhat complex, but I hope that thinking about the concepts will increase awareness.  Lack of awareness is currently plaguing bat conservation, but the people of Fiji are generous and brave, and their willingness to listen to others and learn will help the fate of bats.  When I read the story to the village of Waisali, where Annette was conducting her research, adults and children were shrieking when Mereoni lifted her sasa broom to go after Vakaruru;  they seemed a bit disappointed that she didn’t hit Vakaruru and I still laugh thinking about it.  There were no other school readers on nature at the time.  The aim of this book is to build empathy, and help children and adults (there are few books for adults) to understand that bats are much more than pests and food items.

Had you worked with illustrator Sharon Light previously? If not, how did the partnership come about?

A founder of NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and its initial Director, Dr. Dick Watling, has done a lot for Fiji’s nature, including many projects, but also the production of books and fund-raising.  He has always supported our research and conservation initiatives.  It was him who recommended Sharon to me when I spoke about recruiting a local Fijian artist for illustrating the children’s book.  Sharon and I clicked right away and she understood immediately the types of illustrations I wanted:  something that would be art as well as functional educational interpretation of the words, something that would appeal to adults and children alike.  I am still emotional when I look at the picture of Mereoni watching Vakaruru fly away in the starry night.  Sharon is a well-known artist and extremely talented.  She produces her own children’s books, which I highly recommend because their purpose is also to teach children about Fiji’s nature and conservation.  Sharon not only donated the work she did on Vakaruru and the Bananas, but also did all the running around in Suva after we got the grant, to print and distribute the book.  What a goddess!

The printing of this book was made possible by the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund Small Grants Programme, how important was this funding for your project?

Without this grant, the book would have remained a concept.  The funds allowed the printing of the book and part of the distribution.  Leftover money was returned so that it may serve others seeking funding.  A few copies went to our supporters, some went to NFMV for fund-raising in bat conservation, and most went to the primary schools of Fiji.  I cannot emphasise enough the significance of programmes such as this one to achieve small but crucial steps in the achievement of research and conservation objectives.  Sharon and I are very grateful to Auckland Zoo and the supporters of this programme.

Do you have a conservation message you’d like to share?

Doing nothing about the destruction of nature is condoning it.  Everyone can do something, no matter how small, because every little thing helps.  It can be supporting financially or with volunteer work an organisation that strives to achieve nature conservation, changing one’s way of living, helping to educate others, learning about nature, turning off one’s phone (and other screens) and forgetting about it to immerse oneself in nature, writing to local politicians, campaigning… In the end people must transform political will, so must be engaged.  Letting others worry about conservation issues is letting the planet go.  Infinite growth is not possible so why jump on the growth band wagon?  Screens are not real so why look at the world through screens?  What is real is nature.  This is where nurture and awe come from, food for the body, food for the soul.  Let’s not stand idle to watch millions of years of evolution being wiped out in front of us.  Everything is connected.

What schools will these books be distributed to?

Mr. Hem Chand, Director of Primary Education in Fiji, has assured me that the books would be distributed to all 736 primary school of Fiji by the Ministry of Education.  As you can imagine, his support and enthusiasm are greatly appreciated.  Every primary school age child in Fiji will have a chance to read this book, and there is no charge to the Ministry or the children.  It will be difficult to evaluate fully the impact of the book other than anecdotally, but it would have been very interesting to conduct a social survey of children before and after their exposure to the book.  Another big job for which there is no funding!

Are you looking to create more books in the future?

I would like to create another children’s book in which all bat species of Fiji are woven into the story, but need to give some time to Sharon to work on her own books, and my talent as an illustrator is rather limited.  I have other projects for other parts of the Pacific (including Australia) as well, but I also have a full-time job that always seems to take twice the amount of time it’s supposed to!