Last time I was back in Malaysia (2015), I joined a long-time ecologist friend of mine at her field site, Tioman Island – one of the most stunning islands off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The island is known for its dive sites, shipwrecks and tropical rainforests. Before you start with your ohh… and ahhh…., that was not the MAIN reason we were there (although we did get plenty of time to swim, relax and hike all around the island).
We went there for a very important conservation project – Project Pteropus (Fruit Bats or Flying Foxes). Do you know that they feast on fruits, flowers, and leaves (hence the reason why they are called fruit bats.) And nope, these gentle flying giants definitely DO NOT suck blood.
Two years in since my last visit, and I am curious about the progress of Project Pteropus. So I interviewed Dr Sheema Abdul Aziz, the project leader of Project Pteropus to catch up with her on her journey working on these island flying foxes.
Flying Foxes are in danger
You might be surprised to learn that in Malaysia, flying foxes are under the threat of severe population decline because they are HUNTED for food and medicine, and KILLED as agricultural pests.
Is there a way to prevent these gentle flying giants from inevitable decline?
Currently, the main threats to flying foxes in Malaysia are hunting, persecution by fruit growers, and deforestation. While it’s important to maintain their natural habitat and food sources, flying foxes also suffer from a negative image, as most people don’t like bats, and consider them to be pests. At the same time, some humans also consume flying foxes as a delicacy and as medicine.
So we really need to change these negative attitudes and practices – and the only way to do that is to raise people’s awareness, to show them why flying foxes are important, why flying foxes shouldn’t be killed. People need to realise what we stand to lose if flying foxes disappear.
Flying Foxes Disperse Seeds and Pollinate Flowers over Huge Distances
Can you tell me what’s so special about the island flying foxes and why you choose to work with them?
In Peninsular Malaysia, where I work, overhunting on the mainland has driven flying foxes to the brink of extinction, and islands are the last few refuges where you can still easily spot these gentle flying giants in considerable numbers.
I choose to work with them because flying foxes (which includes bat species from the genera Pteropus spp., Acerodon spp. and Desmalopex spp.) play incredibly important roles in dispersing seeds and pollinating flowers over huge distances.
This makes them especially important in island ecosystems, which tend to have lower species diversity and simpler community assemblages than the mainland. As such, flying foxes on islands often act as keystone dispersers and pollinators both within and between islands, helping to shape ecosystems in these places.
Lack of Data on Conflict with Human Neighbours
Are there really as devastating as farmers and fruit growers claim?
The PROBLEM is there have hardly been any scientific studies conducted on actual fruit-raiding situations, so we have almost no empirical data on it. We only have claims and estimates from the farmers to rely on flying foxes feeding on fruits in orchards and plantations.
We don’t know how much damage flying foxes are actually causing, or the actual financial losses and economic implications.
Killing Flying Foxes is Not The Solution
I want to share a story where a government dismissed the scientific evidence, and that action led to the unnecessary killing of Flying Foxes.
There is only ONE pioneering study conducted in Mauritius that did find that although flying foxes caused a minor amount of damage, it was much less than damage caused by birds and rats. The Mauritian government decided to ignore the scientific evidence and cull flying foxes on the island due to complaints from farmers.
This just goes to show how IMPORTANT it is to conduct outreach and education programmes in order to promote coexistence with flying foxes.
My research actually shows that Tioman Flying Foxes help pollinate Durian, which is an important fruit crop throughout Southeast Asia. This is one way flying foxes are actually helping people instead of harming us.
No Evidence to Back Flying Fox Medicinal Claims
I know flying foxes are thought to be effective against asthma and other respiratory diseases. Is there any evidence that they work?
There is this belief, attributed to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), that eating flying foxes can help cure asthma and other respiratory related ailments. There is NO evidence to show that this is indeed the case. In fact, consumption of flying foxes can actually increase the risk of zoonotic disease transmission (for example Nipah virus).
Tioman’s Island Flying Foxes Like Wild Figs, Mangos and Durian Nectar
When I was with Sheema on the island, we spent our mornings collecting flying fox poop and the rest of the day monitoring and setting up cameras on Durian trees. I am curious what came out of the data she collected.
Can you tell us about your research findings so far?
We collected flying fox poop in two different sites over 8 months, and through DNA barcoding analysis, we’ve made a start at identifying the diet of the Island Flying Fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) on Tioman Island. We found surprisingly that the most important food item dominating the diet is WILD FIGS found in the forest, not fruits from orchards.
But when the mango trees in the villages are fruiting, mango fruits make up a huge component of the diet. So this is where the potential for conflict arises.
As for the tree-climbing, we managed to set up 19 camera traps in 4 flowering durian trees. We got a lot of good footage and data on flying foxes feeding on durian nectar. By analysing these data, we determined that flying foxes have a positive effect on durian fruit production, which is how we now know that flying foxes are important pollinators for durian trees.
The Future of Tioman’s Island Flying Fox Research
This is obviously just the start of Project Pteropus, so what’s next?
Hopefully, we can develop this research into a more long-term project on the conservation ecology of flying foxes and other fruit bats of Malaysia!
In particular, I would really love to conduct more research and collect better data on bat-plant interactions and how these translate into ecosystem services that benefit humans.
I want to raise people’s awareness of why fruit bats are important so that we can really promote conservation and reduce conflict between humans and bats!
How Can You Help?
Today is the day where scientists, science enthusiasts, and concerned citizens from around the world come together to promote science. If you want to support Sheema in her work to understand and preserve the flying foxes and other fruit bats, you can do several things:
- Follow her work, donate your time and $$ here.
- Evidence shows that having flying foxes around are more beneficial than not having them, so don’t kill them!
- If you know of your friends or relative that practice TCM and consume flying foxes, tell them that it will not cure them, it might even give them a deadly disease.
- If you decide to take a vacation on Tioman Island, do drop by the flying foxes roosting sites, and have a first-hand experience appreciating these gentle flying mammal up-close and personal. You can contact Sheema here for the best place to spot the Tioman Flying Foxes.