Declines in fruit bat populations in recent years due to habitat destruction, hunting and natural disasters have led to concern for their long term survival. Compared to other endangered animals such as tigers, elephants and rhinos, bats have received less attention, less media coverage and, as a result, less funding for conservation-related activities. More than half of the 1,300 different bat species are classified as threatened or near threatened with extinction.
Island dwelling fruit bats are one of the most persecuted of all wildlife groups. Identified as crop pests and hunted as a food item, these species are losing the forests they rely on for food and shelter, and in turn diminishing in numbers at an alarming rate.
It is a common belief that species dwelling in large numbers are not endangered. Unfortunately, this is a fallacy. Long before a species becomes extinct, its population can be reduced to a point where it fails to perform essential ecosystem functions. The population of the migratory North American passenger pigeon dropped from billions to extinct in about 40 years as a result of changes to its habitat and being harvested for urban markets.
Hunting & Human Persecution
Hunting bats for food has long been practiced in most of the areas where fruit bats and humans coexist. They can be found for sale, alive or dead, in markets throughout Southeast Asia.
Some cultures believe eating fruit bats can cure such diverse ailments as asthma, kidney issues and even fatigue, but in most places they are simply seen as a delicacy. This is particularly true on Pacific Islands. The market for bats as a luxury food item in the Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam and Saipan has boomed over the last three decades and placed great pressure on the bat population in those and neighboring Pacific Islands.
Life on earth is a delicate balance – processes called ecological functions connect each plant and animal to one another. Pollination and seed dispersal are examples of ecological functions that fruit and nectar bats provide as a service to this balance.
Deforestation is widespread throughout the tropics and poses a major threat to fruit bats because forests provide them with food and roosting sites. The dwindling supplies of timber in developed countries and the massive demand for woodchip, plywood and logs are major components in the problem of tropical deforestation. Furthermore, the removal of large trees by heavy equipment combined with heavy rainfall damages the topsoil and compacts it, preventing new canopy trees from germinating. The soil is then taken over by mats of quick growing plants and insects, which further inhibits regeneration and destroys a whole ecosystem.
The Pacific Region contains 25,000 small islands. Two major causes of the decline in fruit bat populations on these islands are habitat destruction and hunting. Deforestation by humans has been going on for centuries, and most of the largest bat habitats were destroyed a long time ago. One conflict between humans and fruit bats is that they both exploit the same habitats. Fruit bats prefer primary forest, but that is also part of the forest most utilized by loggers. Humans and fruit bats both have their biggest populations on the larger Pacific islands. Human population increases in the last 30 years have led to a massive increase in the rate of deforestation.
Heavy logging is presently taking place on many islands in the South Pacific such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Western Samoa and the Solomon Islands. If the present trend continues, the only surviving fruit bat species will be those occurring on small, uninhabited islands.
Most fruit bats live on islands that are subjected to frequent tropical storms. In the past, these forests were large enough to resist the strong winds and rains, but deforestation has meant that the smaller patches of trees left standing are more easily blown down by the winds and the reduced root networks are undermined by the heavy rain.