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Can a Public Image Makeover Save the Mauritius Fruit Bat?

Conservationists are working to recast perceptions of native pollinators in the wake of controversial culls

Earlier this year I visited Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean famous for its powdery white sand beaches and beautiful seascapes. Lying within the tropical belt, sunsets in Mauritius sneak up quickly and end suddenly. They also coincide with a special event every evening: the ghostly silhouettes of Mauritian fruit bats beginning their nightly forays across the island’s tropical forests. Like shadows, the bats’ twilight migrations are magical and otherworldly. These might also be at risk due to ongoing culls of the vulnerable species. Local conservationists are working hard to ensure the evening spectacle is maintained for decades to come.

photo of Mauritius Fruit Bat photo by Jacque De Speville The government has carried out several culls of the Maritius fruit bat over the past few years. Conservationists say the culls put the vulnerable species at risk.

With wings that can span two-and-a-half feet, Mauritian fruit bats are huge. Also known as the Mauritian flying fox, these mega-bats are the largest endemic mammal on Mauritius. The bats used to live on the nearby island of Reunion, but became extinct there at the beginning of the nineteenth century due to deforestation and hunting. The remaining population on Mauritius is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Mauritian fruit bats forage long distances every night and feed on a variety of fruits, both native and non-native. As they traverse the island, they disperse seeds in their droppings, which in turn help spread and germinate new fruit trees. Additionally, the fruit bats’ nightly travels help pollinate many of the plants they feed on, bolstering fruit production. As Mauritius’s only endemic mammal, the bats play a vital role in the health of the island’s native trees and plants, many of which are threatened and endemic as well.

However, in spite of the multiple ecosystem services the bats provide, many local farmers perceive them as pests and raiders of their fruit trees, particularly mango and litchi crops. (There is little evidence that the bats cause more damage to the island's fruit trees than factors such as weather, over-ripening, or birds.) The Mauritian government has taken a similar position, asserting that fruit bat populations have grown large enough for the species to become a pest, and that action is necessary to maintain ecological balance and protect economically important agricultural operations..

In 2015, in the face of international outcry (including a statement by the IUCN), the government controversially culled 20,000 of the bats — at least a quarter of the island’s population. (Local conservationists believe the government may have overestimated bat populations at 90,000. By their estimate, there were closer to 50,000 bats at the time of the cull, meaning that nearly 40 percent of the population was killed.) According to Vikash Tatayah, Director of Conservation at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and member of the IUCN SSC bat specialist group, this past December, in the midst of a booming litchi crop where fruit was literally going to rot, the Mauritius government culled an additional 10,000 bats.

The culls are alarming conservationists who now fear an uplisting of the species from vulnerable to endangered and who have noted that reduced population numbers put the species at greater risk from weather events like cyclones.

Scientists at MWF say that culling is not an effective method for protecting fruit crops, pointing to studies in tropical Australia. Rather, these studies indicate that the best and most effective way of protecting fruit crops is to cover trees with nets.

Vincent Florens, associate professor of ecology at the University of Mauritius, says culling comes at the expense of both fruit producers and native biodiversity. “I regard the decision to mass-cull the bats as an eminently political one,” he told Earth Island Journal by email. “It is just too difficult to believe that Ministry technical staff and advisors…who supported it genuinely thought it could solve the problem and satisfy the planters. I mean, their scientific knowledge and logic would have needed to be impossibly inadequate to genuinely vote for culling.”

Furthermore, last year at the IUCN Conservation Congress in Hawaii, both NGOs and governments around the world voted overwhelmingly for a motion entitled “Protection of wild bats from culling programs.” Mauritius’s position on the cull isolates it internationally, and stains its otherwise good record of conservation.

The nonprofit MWF is working to combat the culls and change public perception about the bats through a conservation education campaign, recasting the bats as beneficial to farmers and a source of national pride. With the threat of another cull being approved by the government, there is no time to lose in the makeover effort.

photo of Mauritius Fruit Batphoto by Jacque De Speville The Mauritius Wildlife Foundation is trying to educate the public, including farmers, about the important ecological role that fruit bats play in Mauritius.

“We urgently need an awareness campaign and more education,” says Tatayah of MWF. To that end, MWF is working with international groups like Bat Conservation International and the IUCN Bat Specialist Group to convince the government not to cull. At the same time, the NGO is initiating outreach programs to educate locals, including fruit producers, on bat conservation. “Already we are doing surveys to gauge attitudes and behaviors and communicating via social media and other platforms to raise awareness. We are reaching out to fruit producers and targeting a greater public audience.”

One group already being targeted are local Mauritians and tourists who visit Ile aux Aigrettes, a 67 acre island nature reserve and research station on Mauritius’s south-east coast. This small island reserve protects the last remnants of intact Dry Coastal Forest Vegetation on the island, an endangered vegetation type.

Ile aux Aigrettes is like a time capsule, capturing the island’s ecosystem more or less as it was before human contact. Today, it is the last refuge for many of Mauritius’s rarest and most endangered species, such as the Mauritian fody, Telfair’s skink, and a population of non-indigenous Aldabra giant tortoises, brought to the island to fill the ecological role of the now-extinct Mauritian giant tortoises.

Ile aux Aigrettes is playing a central role in MWF’s campaign to educate the public about wildlife generally, and the fruit bat in particular. In addition to conducting research on the island, the nonprofit, runs guided nature education trips to the reserve that are popular with Mauritian locals, tourists, and school groups alike. As part of their tour, visitors are able to see Mauritian fruit bats up close in an enclosure, and learn about the natural history and conservation of the species.

Watching one group of school children observing the bats, I was struck by their mixed reactions. At first they were not sure what to think of these giant bats with fox-like faces hanging upside down wrapped in their leathery wings. However, as a guide coaxed the bats down with fruit, the children’s attitudes change from suspicion to fascination and they began asking questions.

“It’s difficult to say when and if there will be another cull,” says Dr. Tatayah, “but it could happen again. Now we just have to help show more people just how special these creatures are and how lucky we are to have them.”

Mauritius would not be the first place bats underwent a successful public makeover. In Queensland Australia, fruit bats have also come under threat from farmers, as well as from power lines, barbed wire fences, and invasive species. They have also been subjected to culls.

In the state capital of Cairns, however, the local fruit bats have become a popular tourist attraction. When a colony of hundreds of flying foxes began to occupy a massive World Heritage listed fig tree in the heart of Cairns’s central business district in 2015, the regional council at first attempted to disrupt and disperse the colony. After the effort failed and environmental groups and local citizens protested, the council decided instead to maintain the colony. Today, this “nursery tree” attracts visitors from around the world who come to marvel at the bats’ large aerial displays each evening. In doing so, visitors contribute to the local economy.

Similarly, when a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats began roosting under a bridge along the San Antonio river walk in Texas, some local residents initially wanted to exterminate them. Better judgment prevailed, and with time the bats won over much of the city with their nightly migrations. Today the bats are a major attraction and unique source of pride for the city and surrounding area.

Mauritius’s most famous native species, the Dodo, was hunted to extinction by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since then, it has become the poster child for the conservation movement and a grim warning to the world of the dangers of unsustainable killing of wildlife. Local conservationists hope their makeover campaign will help prevent the same fate for the Mauritian fruit bat.

Jesse Lewis
Jesse Lewis is a conservation biologist and freelance journalist. His work focuses on issues of conservation, the environment, and people's relationship to nature. His website is https://jesselewisphotography.squarespace.com/

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