Gliding towards the brink


  • Lifestyle
  • Tuesday, 14 Feb 2012

Flying foxes face an uncertain future as their habitats shrink and they are shot down.

AT THE back of a traditional shophouse in Pasir Panjang, which lies along the trunk road between Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, and Malacca, Ang Boon Choo, 62, shows me his gun. A long, sleek affair with smooth wooden handle and details engraved onto the metal, the shotgun looks substantial against the man’s aging frame, and out of place in his neat blue-tiled kitchen.

Pasir Panjang is small; the town is clustered around two rows of shophouses lining Jalan Besar – a brief stretch of habitation between tracts of jungle, and oil palm and rubber estates. There is a Chinese temple, a school, a small building which houses the Chung Hua Chinese School Old Students Association, and not a lot to do. Nevertheless, the area’s plentiful greenery harbours an assortment of wildlife. In the 1960s, Ang’s father passed his time hunting wild boars, green pigeons and flying foxes.

Ang, who runs a liquor store, was in his 30s when he took up the sport of hunting bats. One of the closest hunting spots was Linggi in Negri Sembilan, which he would travel to with a group of hunters by jeep.

“The bats would be hanging from the trees near Linggi River, hundreds of them,” he recalls.

The trick was to get there really early, and at dawn, position yourself at a strategic point along the bank where incoming bats could be shot as they returned from a night’s feasting. Or you could wait until dusk, when bats begin to leave the roost in small groups, flying elsewhere to feed on nectar and fruits.

“The years between 1989 and 1993 were good years. There were thousands of bats and we would catch 40 to 50 in just one day,” he recalls. “When you look up, the sky would be black with bats. You could stand there for a whole hour, and they would keep coming, thousands of them. Sometimes, we would sell the bats to restaurants to make back some of the money we spent on bullets (which cost 60 sen per shot back then). The restaurants in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan, or Jalan Cheng in Malacca would pay RM7 per bat, and then sell them for RM50.”

Some of Ang’s friends came to see the lucrative side of this.

“There was one year, sometime in the 1990s, when someone I knew made RM16,000 in nine months. He spent RM9,000 on bullets.”

Things have, however, somewhat changed since the 90s. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone single-handedly shooting over 2,000 bats in less than a year. You would be lucky to shoot any; bats are no longer a common sight in Linggi.

Hunting parties have to travel much further to find bats now. “Some of my friends go down to Kuala Rompin (roughly 260km away) in Pahang to hunt flying fox,” says Ang, who has a hunting permit for bats from the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

He thinks it is the growing pace of development in the area that has chased the bats away. “Lots of their roosting habitat has been converted into oil palm plantations, or developed into housing and such. Last October, we did see some bats, but instead of thousands, there were only a few hundred, and we only managed to shoot a few.”

Ang shot only four flying foxes, before giving up last season. “There were just too few, flying too high,”

Fewer numbers

Over the years, there has been evidence that shows a steady decline in the Peninsular Malaysian flying fox population. Perhilitan records show a drop in hunting licence applications. In 2005, 541 hunting licences were issued. The number dropped to 219 in 2008, rose to 369 in 2010 and then plummeted to 192 in 2011.

The Malayan flying fox (Pteropus Vampyrus), also known as the giant fruit bat, is listed as “near threatened” in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This means that the species is in significant decline and at risk from over-harvesting. The ranking, however, might not reflect the severity of the situation in Malaysia. Part of the reason for its listing as “near threatened”, as opposed to anything more severe, is its widespread distribution. The species is found across South-East Asia. And like Malaysia, where few people study the species, little research has been done in many countries within the bat’s habitat range.

Therefore, baseline opulation data is largely deficient.

Hunting of flying foxes is prohibited in Sarawak and Thailand but most of the other range countries either have no restrictions, or allow limited hunting. The current licensing system in Peninsular Malaysia, which has been in place since 1972, allows hunting year-round. Each permit is valid for three months and allows a bag limit of 50 heads, and hunters are required to keep a record of their take. There is no annual restriction on how many licences one can apply for.

Anyhow, most hunters are unbothered about the quota as often, no Perhilitan officer is around to check their take.

And the records do not reveal the actual number of bats killed during a hunt. Heng Aik Kin, 54, is one of Ang’s old hunting partners. Though he stopped practising the sport about 10 years ago, he remembers the damage a shotgun can inflict.

“When you shoot, many small pellets are released, injuring more than one bat. Aside from bats that you take down (within retrieval range), many others may be injured in flight, but land and die elsewhere.”

The upshot of this is that there is likely to be a significant amount of collateral damage. Some hunters shoot beyond the allowed hunting time of 5am to 7.30am and 7.30pm to midnight, using spotlights which blind the bats, not giving them a fair chance of escape. One particularly dirty tactic is to shoot one bat down, then torture it with a stick. The high-pitched screeches from the injured bat will attract other bats in the colony to fly low, bringing them within shooting range.

In 2009, renowned veterinarian epidemiologist Jonathan Epstein published a paper in the Journal of Ecology which pointed out that the Peninsular Malaysian flying fox population could face extinction due to current hunting policies. Drawing from the number of hunting licences issued by Perhilitan, his study estimated that an average of 22,000 flying foxes were killed annually. It also came up with a range of population estimates, the most optimistic of which was 500,000. Bats, unfortunately, tend to only give birth to one pup per year (the gestation period lasts for six months).

Epstein – who is associate vice-president at Ecohealth Alliance and part of an international team that identified bats as the natural wildlife reservoir for SARS coronavirus in China – calculated that for hunting to be sustainable in a population of 500,000, the maximum take would be around 16,000 annually. This means the rate at which our flying foxes are being killed exceeded the rate at which they can reproduce. To reiterate Epstein’s findings, published but seemingly ignored: the flying fox could go extinct in Peninsular Malaysia within the next six to 81 years.

The end of hunting?

Following the publication of Epstein’s study, many wildlife experts called for a temporary ban on hunting of flying foxes. Among them was Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia professor of small vertebrate ecology, Dr Zubaid Akbar Mukhtar Ahmad, who says a ban would at least provide a window of time for bat populations to recover, and give time for more behavioural and ecological research, which is sorely lacking for the species.

“The problem is, bats are not as charismatic as tigers. Research is expensive, plus working in the jungle at night is not every one’s cup of tea.”

Epstein’s study also prompted Perhilitan to state in 2009 that it will consider instituting a temporary hunting ban but it put the matter on hold pending amendments to the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972. (The new Wildlife Conservation Act was finally gazetted in 2010). The department had stated then that a ban on hunting might give rise to difficulties in controlling damage caused by the species during fruiting seasons.

Until press time, Perhilitan has yet to respond to questions by Star2 on whether a moratorium on bat hunting is being considered. Despite the grim outlook, there has been small successes in protecting the species, the most recent of which has been Terengganu Government’s directive to Perhilitan to stop issuing hunting permits for flying foxes.

Late last year, flying foxes reappeared en-masse around Bukit Kapah in Kuala Berang, Hulu Terengganu. The visit came after a three-year dry spell, according to Ong Kim Bian, 57, who says that it used to be common to see thousands around the area. The return, however, was also accompanied by the resonating sound of gun shots, as hunters arrived to take advantage of the rich pickings. This prompted environmentalists to highlight the issue of Malaysia’s declining bat population to the state government and on Jan 18, the state executive council decided to put a stop to the activity.

The last such decision was made in 1998, when Sarawak made it illegal to hunt, capture, sell, import or export bats, after acknowledging the important roles bats play not only as seed dispersers, but as tourist attractions.

Terengganu state chairman of industry, trade and environment Datuk Toh Chin Yaw, who had raised the issue at the state executive council, grew up in Kuala Terengganu, and remembers seeing flying foxes as a boy.

“They would be hanging from telephone lines. But I have recently been told these animals are facing great threats from hunting activities. We want to make sure that what wildlife we have left is preserved so future generations will be able to enjoy them too. We can only do what we can within the state of Terengganu, however.”

And even if bats were fully protected under Malaysian law, there is still the sticky matter of what happens across international borders. Flying foxes shift location according to where trees are fruiting and flowering, and also to search for new roosting areas, perhaps due to habitat loss or to escape persecution from hunting.

“Satellite telemetry shows these bats move across national borders and spend significant amounts of time not only in Malaysia but also Indonesia (Sumatra) and Thailand,” says Epstein in an e-mail interview.

Governments, therefore, need to come together if an effective regional management strategy is to be developed. Endeavours such as the Convention on Migratory Species have been effective at protecting migratory birds, and there is a co-ordinated effort currently being undertaken among European countries to have consistent trans-border bat management and conservation strategies, under Eurobats.

The first hurdle for P. vampyrus, however, remains to be the need for better baseline abundance data, in its range countries.

“Without proper studies, we won’t know what’s happening to local populations in each location, and bats may be vulnerable to the same major threats, hunting and habitat loss,” says Epstein.

“Hunting and habitat loss are very real threats to Old World fruit bats, including the Pteropus species. In many cultures, they are hunted for food, and there is very little data available on their abundance in the wild. One of the challenges is that they are slow to reproduce.

Thus mortality, especially with the female, has a significant impact on the ability for a population to persist.”

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