Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Chikungunya should help conservation cause

Published:Friday | September 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A section of the Cockpit Country reserve in Trelawny. PHOTO BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR
In this undated file photo, an Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads chikungunya, is shown on human skin.

THE COCKPIT Country conservation movement has received a shot in the arm and from a most unlikely source - the dreaded chikungunya virus which has distressed Jamaicans in recent weeks.

Sited inside the Cockpit Country is the Windsor Caves - home to some 100,000 bats, whose continued health and safety, researchers say, is invaluable in the effort to stymie the spread of the so-called 'chik-V'.

The virus is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which the insectivores among the bat population at Windsor consume.

Bats, according to head of the Windsor Research Centre (WRC), Mike Schwartz, can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour and as much as half their weight (1.5 to 25 grams) each night.

"You need to preserve the bat habitat and the corridors [they travel] if you want to keep the valuable ecosystem services that they provide," he said.

"If you interrupt the flow of the bats from the Windsor Caves to the coast, for example, some of the bats will die because you are blocking their ability to get to their food resource ... . If those bats don't eat the insects, which include Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, then you are going to have more chikungunya," warned Schwartz whose research think tank has been doing work on bats and their offerings since 2001.

The wider impact of bats

But bats - whose presence inside the Cockpit Country extend beyond those resident at Windsor Caves - do more than eat mosquitoes and other insects.

Members of the bat population, according to an October 2011 WRC newsletter, are also nectarivores, who drink nectar and, in doing so, carry pollen from flower to flower.

"Most night-time flowers with strong scents are pollinated by bats," reads the newsletter, titled Bats: Their Contribution to Pollination, Insect Control and Forest Regeneration.

There are, too, frugivores among them, who carry fruit and defecate in flight, thus spreading the seeds "far and wide, helping forest regeneration and maintaining forest diversity", added the newsletter.

Threats to bats include buildings and developments that affect roosts and cause loss of habitat while interrupting commuting routes.

News of the bats of Windsor Caves comes even as WRC rolls out the 'Cockpit Country is Our Home' campaign, which kicked off Wednesday with a radio series showcasing the offerings of the key biodiversity area.

The campaign, financed primarily through WRC and run by film-maker Esther Figueroa, also includes print and electronic ads and social-media advocacy to raise awareness about the Cockpit Country. It is also intended to build support against any move to allow mining in the area.

Bats aside, the Cockpit Country - which forms a part of the Cockpit Country-North Coast Forest-Black River Great Morass Conservation Corridor that spans 2,458 kilometres square, according to the 2010 Ecosystem Profile: The Caribbean Islands Biodiversity Hotspot - has an array of offerings.

Not the least of these is the provision of some 40 per cent of the Jamaican population with fresh water and it supports 59 globally threatened species, including 11 amphibians and 40 plant species.

It also provides a range of natural forest products, including yam sticks - to say nothing of forest cover that serves a carbon capture function at a time when growing emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are fuelling global warming.

natural services

Given the abundance of natural offerings, Dr Susan Koenig, director of research at WRC, cautioned against any change of use for the Cockpit Country.

"Right now, Cockpit Country is a really productive ecosystem and it might be easy for us not to fully appreciate it or to under-value it, because we don't have to pay money for the services," she warned.

"But we couldn't begin to pay for all the services provided, and even if we had a large amount of money, we couldn't duplicate those services. So someone might derive enormous benefit from changing the environment today, but society generally ends up having to pay the cost," Koenig added.