As a nature lover, living in an environment that is predominantly concrete can be at times overwhelming. But I always find some inner peace when black silhouettes starts to appear in the sky, flying around, as dusk comes. It always feel special to be in a human-dominated area and still being able to get a glimpse of this gem of the Mauritian biodiversity: the Mauritius fruit bat also known as the Mauritian flying fox. Yet they do not always trigger a positive response among Mauritians.
For some, the fruit bat is nothing but a pest that need to be controlled. “Destroy them!”, “They are health risks!”, “Bats should be eradicated!” This is the type of opinions that will be encountered when I dare to stroll down and read the comment section of online articles on the fruit bat. While this can be frustrating, I believe as a conservationist, that every conservation challenge should be looked at with a wide angle lens to see the bigger picture. So is such animosity justified? Is the Mauritian fruit bat really that detrimental?
It has been the subject of debate for several years now in Mauritius since it was designated as THE culprit causing extensive damage to seasonal fruit crops. Some efforts were taken to tackle the ‘problem’, for example by providing protective nets to fruit growers and attempts were made to change the protected status of the bat so its population could be controlled. However, these resources were and is being mobilized for a ‘problem’ that is not fully understood, with no robust evidence to back the claims. There are other probable predators of the orchard fruits such as rats and birds, but due to their sizes, these are less easily spotted than the more conspicuous fruit bat.
According to Dr Vincent Florens (Associate Professor at the University of Mauritius) who has personally observed rat predation on fruiting trees, a careful observation of the fallen fruits would be enough to determine if they were indeed damaged by bats or rats. Recently a study, that started in 2014, and led by Dr Ryszard Oleksy, a researcher from Bristol University (in collaboration with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation), is looking at the impact of the fruit bat on commercial fruit farms. Preliminary findings from the study are indicating that around 55% of developed mango fruits were damaged.
However 32% of this was due to natural causes. The remaining 23 % were lost due to animal with both bats and birds being at cause with up to 14% and 9 % of damage. However there remain some uncertainties and as the study gets confirmed with more surveys in the future, there is at present still a knowledge gap that does not justify the assumption that fruit bats is ravaging fruit farms.
While the concerns of the fruit growers need to be considered, I have at times encountered negative attitude of the general public towards the fruit bat, even if there is no claimed personal loss from the species. Is Mauritians in general antagonistic towards the bat? If it is so, why? “There is too many fruit bats”- some may say. Unfortunately, little is known about the population dynamics of the species. While the population of fruit bats may have increased over time, this should rather be good news for such a unique species. Because major cyclones could cause a drastic decline in the population and as its past extinction in Rodrigues and Reunion can attest, it could easily encounter the same fate in Mauritius. At present there is only tens of thousands of fruit bats on the island which is far from the millions that some uninformed person may state as actual statistics and facts.
I also have to put forward that more frequent sightings of the fruit bats is not necessarily an indicator of a dramatic increase in the population. There may be a lack of food in their natural habitats, driving them to look out for other food sources elsewhere, and more often. The native forests in Mauritius are getting more and more degraded due to invasive plants introduced by man. And studies by Mauritian researchers has already shown that native trees are producing less fruits due to these introduced plants.
The latest factor to play against the fruit bat is fear. Fear brought about by the recent Ebola crisis in western Africa. The World Health Organization indeed lists fruit bats as natural hosts for the Ebola virus, but this is not a reason to panick. A distinction need to be made between actual hosts and potential hosts. Just like the fact that anybody can be HIV-positive does not mean that everybody is. Fortunately for us there is no reservoirs of Ebola in Mauritius. Can the Mauritian fruit bat be a carrier of other diseases?
Yes! Like some other animals that we encounter in our daily lives and yet it would still not represent a health risk. Because unless you are a well-trained scientist handling them for research or somebody taking care of them in captivity, there should be little or no direct interaction between people and the fruit bats. If future studies confirm that the Mauritian fruit bats are vectors of some serious disease, it is only a segment of the Mauritian population that should be the most worried: those that enjoy the meat of this protected species as a food delicacy.
When it comes to the animosity towards the Mauritian fruit bats, I can only believe that it is fueled by the circulation of inaccurate information and a lack of knowledge and awareness. Instead of using assumptions and opinions as facts and evidence, why not use limited resources to understand the real problem, at the root, to make informed and cost-effective decisions accordingly?
Nobody like to be treated unfairly. So let’s hope that we act as responsible intelligent beings, using solid facts and evidence to give the fruit bat a fair trial. In the meantime I will continue to treasure the sights of these beautiful creature, wishing they had the choice and could be in control of their fate.