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  Bats are Pollinators not Pests
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There is alarming ignorance about the important roles bats play in the regeneration and maintenance of tropical forests and also in the well-being of bat-dependent crops (like the Durian and petai bean). This has led to the cruel and senseless hunting of bats, sometimes for fun or sport. In fact, some hunters justify their bat killing skills by saying they are doing farmers a favour by shooting down a crop pest. How wrong they are!

It is even more sad to learn that learned people, like the distinguished British biologist Dr Francis Ratcliffe, have, as recently as 1984, reported that the fruit bats are a nuisance because in their search for fruits that have ripened prematurely or been missed in harvesting, they damage and thereby render unmarketable unripe fruits. Nothing it seems was acknowledged of the fruit bat's vital role in dispersing seeds or pollinating in the first place. Such appallingly ignorance have led to bats being painted as entirely destructive and therefore deserving of extermination.

We must also acknowledge that bats are being killed for another purpose in Malaysia and Indonesia and that is for their flesh as food, medicine and aphrodisiac potions. The Chinese believe that bat meat can cure asthma, kidney ailments and treat general malaise. (One can at least understand the killing of bats or other animals for food in times of famine but it is very hard to condone the eating of bat meat for aphrodisiac purposes or to treat ailments that appear to have their root causes in our modern day diets and lifestyle.)

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that years of wanton killing, in addition to habitat destruction have resulted in drastic declines of bat populations. The big colonies characteristic of many species may lead to the erroneous impression that they are more common than they actually are, when no effort has been made to distinguish between species. In some cases an entire species of bat is represented by one of a few colonies and can appear abundant when they are actually on the verge of extinction. Most of the forest habitat of the Naked Bat has been destroyed by development, logging and shifting cultivation. Even when the forest is intact, bats are vulnerable because their feeding grounds include open patches, areas around streams and clearings.

What's more, apart from being devastated by losing their forest habitat, bats have also become indirect victims of poisoning through feeding on insects that have been sprayed with deadly agricultural pesticides. Ramli Ahmad, in his NST article, expressed concern for the future of bats in Sarawak because of the number of huge plantations all heavy users of pesticides that have been developed around Miri and its interior. As bats eat a lot of insects, pesticide use in the plantations will corrupt their food chain and lead to a situation where there will be less bats and therefore even more insects, warned Rambli.

Then there is the destruction of caves another vital bat habitat as a result of quarrying activities. Caves in West and East Malaysia notably in Pahang, Perlis and Batu Caves are slowly disappearing, ending up as cement for building projects. (Every time we see yet one more house, flat or shop built, every time we see yet another patch of garden turned to cement, let us pause and think of the trees and the caves and the bats and other animals that needlessly died to satisfy our seemingly unstoppable greed for material things.)

There is some but not enough awareness that bats are vital to a healthy ecosystem and that is why the imminently threatened Naked Bat has become a totally protected species (NST, 12 Oct, 1996). A few other species of bat are also supposedly protected.
We say supposedly because, while they are 'protected' under the (Malaysian) Wildlife Protection Ordinance (Amendment 76), the general legislation in Peninsular Malaysia concerning wild animals states that any animal which poses a threat to a resident, crop or property can be killed. And, as fruit bats are considered fruit pests, they can be hunted freely under this provision. Singapore has a Wild Animals and Birds Act (since 1904) which protects ALL our wildlife, except for six bird species considered as pests. Our wild animals and birds may not be killed, taken or kept without a licence from the Primary Production Department. The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000.

However, the Sarawak State Forestry Department has now realised the vital ecological importance of bats and has issued a warning against anyone found hunting flying foxes (bats). Penalties for offenders include jail and fairly stiff fines. It is clear that changing people's antipathy towards bats, through education, is urgently needed to protect them from further human assault.

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