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Flying foxes' adorable name won't save them from extinction threats

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‘There is nothing wise in so senselessly destroying the biodiversity on which we depend’

The Greater Mascarene flying fox (Pteropus niger), a threatened key pollinator and seed disperser on Mauritius.
Photo by Jacques de Spéville

Flying foxes, increasingly at risk of extinction, face threats in the form of hunting, habitat loss, and mass culling. That’s bad for island ecosystems — and, eventually, the people who live there, according to a new perspective published today in Science.

Unfortunately for all of us, flying foxes are not actual foxes with wings. They are large bats with longish snouts and fox-like faces that mostly live on islands and archipelagoes from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The animals eat fruits, flowers, nectar, and roots — and they are key for pollinating plants and dispersing seeds. In fact, they can fly over long distances — over 37 miles in one night — bringing with them fruits (and seeds) and even pooping seeds as they fly. Plants aren’t likely to survive if their seeds can’t get far enough away from their mother plants, and so the flying foxes ensure their spread, says study co-author Vincent Florens, an associate professor at the University of Mauritius, in an email to The Verge.

Photo by Jacques de Spéville

There are 65 species of flying fox around the world, and about half of them are threatened with extinction. The bats are hunted in large numbers for their meat or as a sport, and the forests where they live are being cut down. Many fruit growers also believe the bats are bad, because the mammals eat their fruits; so several governments approve of mass flying fox killings. In 2015 and 2016, in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, the government killed over 40,000 flying foxes as part of a mass cull campaign, even though the local species, Pteropus niger, is considered vulnerable to extinction. “The cull was a response to the conflict with fruit growers,” says study co-author Tigga Kingston, a biology professor at Texas Tech University.

Almost all of the threatened flying fox species live on islands. Islands are closed environments, so the bats have nowhere to escape if they’re being hunted. “When you’re on an island, there’s nowhere to hide,” Kingston says. Tropical islands are also more vulnerable to cyclones and typhoons, which are dangerous for the bats. Sometimes, up to 95 percent of bat populations can be lost in a single storm, Kingston says.

The bats don’t reproduce quickly, either. Female flying foxes become fertile when they’re two or three years old, and they typically have only one baby each year. That makes it hard for populations to rebound when there are mass killings.

Photo by Jacques de Spéville

Saving the flying foxes is challenging because the animals are treated differently in different countries. In the Nicobar Islands, for example, two flying fox species, P. melanotus and P. faunulus, are “considered to be vermin” and can be legally killed, the study says. In the Philippines, Palau, and Mauritius, there are laws protecting the bats, but they’re not enforced, and hunters aren’t prosecuted. Since 1989, all Pteropus species have been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), limiting legal international trade in hunted bats. But in almost 30 years, the situation hasn’t improved. “Conservation of the bats is actually worse than it was 30 years ago,” Kingston says.

The local laws need to be enforced, habitats need be protected, and people need to be educated about the key ecological role the bats play, Kingston says. On islands like Mauritius, P. niger is literally the only important pollinator and seed disperser left, after two other flying fox species, some native birds, and other fruit-eating animals like dodos and giant tortoises were driven to extinction. Without these animals, plants won’t be able to reproduce, including the crops locals grow for selling and eating.

“If we carry on in the current situation then I think we’re going to lose a lot more species,” Kingston says. Not all hope is lost, but, Florens adds, “it would require that human beings resolve to measure up to the so far rather pretentious definition of itself: our scientific name ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’ means ‘wise wise man’. There is nothing wise in so senselessly destroying the biodiversity on which we depend.”