Workshop Volunteers Making a Difference for One of Earth’s Most Important Animal Refuges

Zambia’s Kasanka National Park provides a key “refueling” stopover site for some 8 – 10 million straw-colored fruit bats, the world’s largest remaining mammal migration. It also supports an unusually diverse assortment of habitats, including a wide variety of woodlands and riparian forests interspersed with papyrus swamps, lakes and grassy floodplains. In addition to the amazing fruit bats, the park includes nearly 40 additional bat species, with a total of 123 mammal species, close to 500 bird species, and many reptiles and amphibians. Even without the bats, the park is a biological treasure.

An adult male straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum)

Some of the additional species that we caught in Kasanka National Park

Straw-colored fruit bats come from thousands of kilometers around to spend two to three months annually feasting on the area’s extraordinary abundance of native fruits. Loss of their continent-wide seed dispersal and pollination services could spell widespread disaster, both ecologically and economically. While at Kasanka they roost in just a single hectare of the 470 square kilometer park, but the area required for foraging is much larger. Protecting both the park and surrounding feeding habitat is essential to these bats’ survival. On average, each bat consumes approximately twice its body weight nightly in native fruit. And that amounts to thousands of tons of critically important seed dispersal!

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Roosting straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum)

When the park was created it was further protected by a buffer zone, called the Kafinda Game Management Area (GMA) which is managed through the Kasanka Trust partnership with the Zambian government, and via the establishment of Community Forest Management Areas (CFMA). Unfortunately, this key refuge is so remote that it is easily neglected, especially during a travel-halting pandemic. For example, over the past several years the research camp fell into disrepair, lacking funds from visitation. 

 

The GMA, and even the park itself, are being illegally invaded. Over five thousand hectares of habitat within the game management area have already been lost and forest clearing continues. If proposed projects are permitted, they could easily divert most of the dry season water from the Luwombwa River, water that is essential to the park’s exceptionally rich habitat diversity. Furthermore, introductions of exotic game and a proposed wind farm in the bats’ flight path may pose even greater threats.

Over time, these bats are losing the biggest trees, which they appear to have originally preferred. The sheer weight of so many bats can break large branches, increasing the bats vulnerability to predators as they are forced to move lower and lower. Historically, they had more options.
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Being forced into a relatively small roosting area, the preferred extra-large trees gradually become defoliated forcing bats to roost lower down where they are more exposed to predators.
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Industrial agriculture encroachment increasingly threatens the bats’ feeding opportunities, including in areas of legal protection in and near the GMA around Kasanka National Park.

Thanks to generous support from our members, we were able to organize two back-to-back workshops at the park, one in October and another in November 2022. 

Kasanka Trust organizes conservation agriculture and sustainable projects to develop and support livelihoods for community members in the CFMAs. They also participate in legislative protection of the park and its resources. Until attitudes and ways of life change, law enforcement and community outreach combined will be essential for park protection. Our workshop participation fees were used to support Kasanka Trust and their activities, including rebuilding the park’s Kinda Research and Education Camp.

Participants were able to capture and record 19 of the park’s 40 bat species, learn research techniques, and share their knowledge with park employees and Zambian biologists. Having this data allows them to better understand and conserve their bats and related habitats.

Images from MTBC’s workshops in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park

Merlin’s bat talks to nearby school children and park visitors and staff were enthusiastically received. But nothing could top the spectacular emergences and returns of millions of migrating fruit bats with nearly three-foot wingspans, a never to be forgotten experience.

Dawn return of migrating fruit bats
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Merlin introducing school children to bats
Local school children greeting Merlin

Much of our trip’s success was made possible by key volunteer assistance. Daniel Hargreaves again played a special role in organizing, promoting, and leading both trips. His contributions were invaluable as always. Joey Chapman and Matt Gove shot invaluable video footage documenting this wonder of nature, including the bats’ extraordinary value and special needs for improved protection. Participants also provided much appreciated assistance that enabled Merlin to obtain important new portraits and the first ever photos of a woolly bat entering and exiting its roost in an abandoned weaverbird nest. A final video will be edited by Joey and made available for use by the Kasanka Trust in its ongoing efforts to save Kasanka National Park and its invaluable residents.

Damara woolly bat (Kerivoula argentata) emerging from its roost in an abandoned weaverbird nest.
Videographer Joey Chapman climbs to a bat viewing platform to photograph an emergence.

What's Next for Kasanka and MTBC...

While visiting, Merlin discovered that one of the best bat viewing platforms needs repair, and Kasanka Park will rebuild it and name it in honor of Merlin Tuttle. The safety and availability of quality bat viewing platforms is absolutely critical for the park’s ecotourism and conservation efforts and for sharing the beauty and values of this unique spectacle. This requires speedy funding before the cost of materials rises. If you’re in a position to help, please donate here

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Keep up with the latest news on the park and ongoing efforts through Kasanka Trust.

As always, a huge thank you to our members and donors for the essntial support of MTBC field workshops. These are only possible through the generous support of many. Join MTBC as a member to get first notificaitons of field workshop opportunities!

Emergence of migrating fruit bats at Kasanka National Park
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Sunrise return of straw-colored fruit bats.

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Michael Lazari Karapetian

Michael Lazari Karapetian has over twenty years of investment management experience. He has a degree in business management, is a certified NBA agent, and gained early experience as a money manager for the Bank of America where he established model portfolios for high-net-worth clients. In 2003 he founded Lazari Capital Management, Inc. and Lazari Asset Management, Inc.  He is President and CIO of both and manages over a half a billion in assets. In his personal time he champions philanthropic causes. He serves on the board of Moravian College and has a strong affinity for wildlife, both funding and volunteering on behalf of endangered species.