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Flying foxes Wat Phnom's newest tourist attraction

Flying foxes Wat Phnom's newest tourist attraction

bat.jpg
bat.jpg

Flying foxes: better served fertilizing durians than spicing up soup

A

COLONY of more than 1000 flying foxes adjacent to historic Wat Phnom will soon

be on sightseeing maps of Phnom Penh if the World Conservation Society (WCS) gets

its way.

What appear to be fat pieces of leathery fruit or black bin liners hanging from the

upper branches of two trees on the grounds of the Council for the Development of

Cambodia (CDC) east of Wat Phnom are actually a huge urban colony of large flying

foxes.

"When we ask people to estimate how many bats there are, they generally say

between 150-200," said bat expert Joe Ralston, a Senior Research Coordinator

for WCS. "In fact, the first tree has about 1000 bats, and the second around

250."

One of the largest species of fruit bats with wingspans of up to five feet in diameter,

the flying fox colony of Wat Phnom is one of the capital's better-kept environmental

secrets.

"The fact that these bats are living in the middle of Phnom Penh is quite unique,"

Walston explained. "Phnom Penh is the only capital city in Asia with flying

foxes in the center of the city, except perhaps for Rangoon."

Ralston aims to capitalize on the existence of the Wat Phnom flying fox colony by

making it a focal point of a planned campaign to boost public bat awareness and conservation

efforts in the Kingdom.

"We're hoping to put up signs on the walls of CDC below the bat colony to tell

people what they are and why they're important," Ralston said. "We want

to give local people a sense of ownership [with regard to the bats] and explain why

these bats are special to Phnom Penh."

While Ralston notes wryly that flying foxes and other bats are already starring attractions

on the menus of numerous "bat restaurants" on Route 1 outside Phnom Penh,

WCS hopes to generate awareness of the usefulness of the animals as something other

than an ingredient for soup.

"Flying foxes are generally persecuted wherever they go, and in much of the

rest of Southeast Asia most of their habitat has been destroyed," Ralston said

of the bats' declining numbers across Asia. "But [flying foxes] are the sole

fertilizers of some fruit, particularly durian , so they really provide tangible

benefits to people in the region."

As the flying foxes prepare to depart the capital on their annual dry season breeding

migration, Ralston plans to learn more about the colony by outfitting several of

the bats with radio transmitters and tracking them during their journey.

"Where they go is really a bit of a mystery," Ralston told the Post. "We

want to find out where they go and the distribution of their breeding sites."

Meanwhile, Ralston has already brought together several local and expatriate bat

enthusiasts to form a "bat group" to assist with Cambodian bat awareness

and conservation efforts as well as the production of a "Bats of Phnom Penh"

guide.

Ralston is also keen to maintain a dialogue with Cambodian National Museum officials

regarding the fate of the more than one million bats living in the museum's ceiling.

Research Ralston has recently completed on the museum's bat colony, which is blamed

for a daily shower of bat guano, urine and ticks on museum displays and visitors,

refutes earlier contentions that the museum boasted a "new species", the

Cambodian Free-Tailed bat.

"We definitely feel that the antiquities in the museum are more important that

the bats in the roof," Ralston explained. "But we're hopeful that any future

repairs to the museum can serve to protect both Cambodia's cultural and biological

heritage."

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