Education is Key to Flying Fox Survival

Merlin Tuttle
10/25/17

In response to the Mongabay article of August 29 titled, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz, commented as follows on September 5:

Sheema in a durian tree.

“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”

Dr. Aziz explaining flying fox pollination to Mak Long, owner of the durian orcharad where her Ph.D. rhesis research was conducted. MTBC photos are playing a vital role in educating islanders to a better appreciation of flying foxes.
Sheema using a light microscope to look for pollen grains in flying fox droppings.

Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowersas even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.

 

Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.

Large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) have wingspans of nearly six feet, the largest of any bat. They are widespread in Southeast Asia, Borneo and the Philippines, but are in alarming decline due to over-harvesting for human food, and are often needlessly killed when entering orchards.

She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”

An island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), the focus of Dr. Azizes’ primary research.

Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!

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