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Home arrow Environment arrow Bats in the Anthropocene: Conservation of Bats in a Changing World

Southeast Asia

Although there are 95 species of pteropodids, including 31 flying foxes (IUCN 2014) in Southeast Asia, there is little published information on fruit crop damage caused by bats. Perception of damage is however widespread and has implications for conservation. For example, it may explain the Malaysian government's reluctance to provide full protection for the nation's flying foxes (large flying fox Pteropus vampyrus and island flying fox P. hypomelanus) by halting licensing which has led to unsustainable hunting (Epstein et al. 2009). So far, little attempt has been made to investigate the issue of conflict or quantify the economic loss.

Fujita (1988) reported that pteropodid bats, specifically flying foxes and the lesser dog-faced fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis), are considered pests by orchard owners interviewed in Malaysia and Indonesia and are therefore shot when they visit these orchards. Fruit growers considered bats to be particularly problematic for rambutan, langsat (Lansium parasiticum) and water apple (Syzygium aqueum), which are all important market fruits. The owner of one of the largest langsat orchards in Peninsular Malaysia revealed that if measures were not taken to protect his fruit crop several days prior to harvest, 20 % of the crop would be lost to bats. However, he also considered that simple protective measures could be undertaken such as shining bright lamps, lighting fires under the trees, or shooting to scare the bats away, in which case the damage would be negligible. This same orchard owner also appeared to display an understanding of the importance of pteropodids as seed dispersers—he considered that almost all of the langsat trees in his village resulted from seeds dropped by bats. His langsat fruit was typically harvested for sale in the local market.

Fujita and Tuttle (1991) conducted some preliminary investigations into bat pest control in Malaysia and Indonesia, interviewing six plantation/orchard owners and six professional hunters. Owners employed bounty hunters to eradicate bats during flowering and fruiting seasons who could earn up to USD 3 per bat, shooting as many as 100 in one night from a single plantation. A group of three to five hunters regularly patrolled an orchard, using bright lights to locate the bats. According to one hunter, up to seven bats could be hit with a single shot (Fujita 1988). These bats were killed in disproportionately large numbers despite plantation/orchard owners reporting that more significant damage was caused by other animals such as giant squirrels (Ratufa spp.), pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina), binturong (Arctictis binturong), Timor deer (Cervus timorensis) and bearded pigs (Sus barbatus). A professional hunter employed by a pulp and paper plantation in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) reported that in 1983 alone he purchased 2000 rounds of ammunition for sport shooting of flying foxes that were attracted to the eucalyptus flowers. He also reported that bats were killed in the thousands annually during 1983 and 1984, but that their numbers had been drastically reduced by 1985 (Fujita and Tuttle 1991). Using population models based on roost census data and numbers of hunting permits issued in Peninsular Malaysia, Epstein et al. (2009) found that rates of hunting were unsustainable and would lead to local extinction of P. vampyrus.

Gumal et al. (1998) acknowledged that in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), an increase in commercial fruit crops, coupled with the loss of habitats such as beach forests, mangroves and peat swamps, has resulted in flying foxes foraging in orchards and farms. This encroachment has led to them being labelled as pests, and it is reasonable to assume that a similar situation occurs in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

On Tioman Island (Peninsular Malaysia), P. hypomelanus was reported by local people to feed on a wide range of cultivated fruit trees in their villages, where the bats also roost. This happens despite the fact that wild food resources are still widely available in nearby largely intact forest and has resulted in conflict with villagers despite the fruit being cultivated for personal consumption rather than a source of livelihood. Seeds of mango, cashew and rambutan have been found beneath day roosts, and people also frequently reported that the bats feed on langsat, mata kucing (Euphoria malaiense) and various types of Syzygium fruits. Durian (D. zibethinus) pollen has been found in flying fox faeces, and cameratrapping in durian trees has confirmed that P. hypomelanus feeds on durian flowers. Preliminary observations of feeding behaviour suggest that only the nectar is sought, leaving the flowers intact on the branch, and as such, these bats probably perform an important pollination service. Yet some villagers believe that the bats damage or remove the flowers, thereby affecting fruit set (S.A. Aziz, unpublished).

Farmers in Peninsular Malaysia use large, treble fishing hooks and monofilament line set in fruit orchard trees to capture flying foxes. This inhumane method is often lethal, and its efficacy in protecting crops has not been tested. One male P. vampyrus used in a satellite telemetry study was captured in a rambutan orchard in Johor, Malaysia, using this method and released after sustaining minor injuries (Epstein et al. 2009; K.J. Olival, unpublished). Gumal et al. (1998) concluded that there is a need to investigate non-lethal methods for protecting orchards and fruit gardens against bats.

In 2005, a newspaper article highlighted the overall decline of Pteropus in Malaysia, attributing it to logging and hunting (Teoh 2005). Interestingly, it cautioned that this would negatively affect cash crops such as durian (D. zibethinus), petai (Parkia speciosa), rambutan and langsat, highlighting the flying fox's role as a pollinator for these trees. However, some confusion may have arisen between flying foxes (Pteropus spp., Acerodon spp.) and smaller fruit bats such as E. spelaea, since Fujita (1988) and Fujita and Tuttle (1991) use the term to refer to all bats of the family Pteropodidae.

In southeast Thailand, fruit farmers stated that Lyle's flying fox (Pteropus lylei) damages less than 10 % of harvestable mangoes, and far fewer bananas, water apples (Syzygium javanicum) and santol (Sandoricum koetjape). Damage is reduced when fruit trees are mixed compared to monoculture systems. Farmers with mango monocultures treated flying foxes as pests, but most farmers with mixed fruit orchards did not regard them as such (S. Bumrungsri, unpublished). According to these farmers, these flying foxes feed mainly on several fig species, especially F. religiosa which is regarded as a sacred tree in Buddhist Thailand. These figs are common in the landscape, particularly in temples. Flying foxes also feed on flowers of the agate or hummingbird tree (Sesbania grandiflora), commonly found across South and Southeast Asia and in villages in Thailand, where the flowers and young pods are consumed by people. Farmers also mentioned that flying foxes forage in groups of 10–15 individuals and keep returning to the same feeding area on consecutive nights (S. Bumrungsri, unpublished).

More recently, Weber et al. (2015) conducted GPS tracking of P. lylei in central Thailand. Tracked bats were found to forage mostly in farmland, plantations and gardens. All 34 recorded food plant species were noted to also be useful to local people, though not necessarily as fruits for sale or consumption. Thirty-one species were identified as fruit resources, and an unspecified 42 % of these were cash crops (therefore, the only species listed in Table 13.1 are ones that the authors know are cultivated by people in Southeast Asia for either fruits or flowers). Only mango, cashew, banana and tamarind were mentioned specifically as having high economic value or as being cultivated crops. Mangoes were also the most frequently eaten fruit, followed by bananas and tamarind. Such competition for resources between bats and humans was acknowledged as a potential source of conflict. Local farmers confirmed that flying foxes are hunted as an orchard pest in this area.

In Indonesia, Huang et al. (2014) have studied Cynopterus feeding in coffee (Coffea spp.) plantations in Sumatra. Most growers (93 % of 16 interviewed) reported that bats visit their plantations. Coffee berries are taken to feeding perches and the beans discarded after the pericarp is eaten. This study is now investigating the potential of marketing bat-discarded coffee beans as a premium wildlife product.

A recent dietary study on P. giganteus in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar (Win and Mya 2015) also interviewed local villagers to determine the extent of conflict between flying foxes and fruit tree owners. The bats were found to feed on 24 fruit species, 13 of which were also eaten by people. Of these, only three—guava, mango and tamarind—were of commercial importance. Morinda angustifolia and Azadirachta excelsa are used for medicinal purposes, while Ceiba pentandra is still used for stuffing pillows (a practice that is dying out in other Southeast Asian countries). Despite this, local people view the bats positively, and no conflict was reported. The authors of the study concede that a superabundance of mangoes is one reason why people are still willing to tolerate a certain amount of fruit loss.

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