Alexandra Howard, a PhD candidate at the University of the Free State (UFS), has garnered attention and accolades for her ground-breaking research on the role of bats in apple fruit farms in the eastern Free State.
Recently awarded a $3 000 (about R54 000) scholarship grant from Bat Conservation International (BCI), Howard’s project, “Diversity and ecosystem services of bats on apple fruit farms in the eastern Free State,” aims to shed light on the crucial but understudied role bats play in agriculture.
Her work received a significant boost with the prestigious 2023 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Award, making her one of only seven women scientists in the world honoured with this distinction. This recognition holds weight, as historically, several recipients of this award have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.
Serge Sacre, L’Oréal South Africa country manager, emphasised the importance of recognising women scientists in solving global challenges and advocating for their representation across scientific disciplines.
Research fills the gaps
Howard’s research addresses the significant gap in understanding the contribution of bats to agriculture, particularly in South Africa’s vital agricultural regions. She seeks to estimate the value of bats as part of integrated pest management strategies, aiming to reduce the use of insecticides and promote sustainable agricultural practices.
In her study, conducted across six apple farm sites in the Eastern Free State, Howard monitored bat species and insect activity, aiming to understand their impact on suppressing pests in fruit crops.
Despite various pest control methods employed in orchards, the role of bats in pest management has been overlooked due to biodiversity exclusion in conventional farming and limited research on bats.
“This project aligns with multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and aims to offer recommendations for sustainable farming and biodiversity conservation,” Howard explains, highlighting the broader implications of her work.
The knowledge of power
Looking forward, Howard stresses the need to bridge the gap between science and society. She envisions fostering collaborations among academics, citizens, conservation NGOs, government sectors, and students to address the biodiversity crisis collectively.
Howard’s research not only illuminates the ecological and economic value of bats but also counters misplaced public fears, especially exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Through her efforts, she aims to create a more informed and inclusive dialogue between science, agriculture, and conservation, fostering a more sustainable future for both farming practices and bat populations.
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