Shot in the Dark

Mauritius is killing tens of thousands of vulnerable fruit bats.

November 12, 2015

Photo: Simon J. TongeFruit bats at a nature reserve in Mauritius

On the island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the government has just declared open season on 18,000 fruit bats. As you read this, police commandos and private citizens are wandering in the night with shotguns, firing lead into the air at anything that moves. It’s like that murder-is-OK-for-a-day policy in the movie The Purge: ill conceived, poorly executed, and unnecessary as all hell.

The cull is a bad idea for a number of reasons (which I will get to later), but environmentalists are especially worried at the sheer size of it. The Mauritius fruit bat (Pteropus niger) lives only on Mauritius (it once inhabited nearby Reunion Island, too, but was extirpated in 1801). And while the government puts the bat population at 90,000, surveys from the Mauritian Wildlife Federation estimate that it’s closer to 50,000. So the cull could potentially wipe out 36 percent of the island’s fruit bats.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that if the purge is “successful,” the species’s current status of vulnerable would likely deteriorate to endangered or critically endangered. In other words, the cull could singlehandedly push Mauritius fruit bats closer to extinction.

Also called flying foxes, these are some of the biggest bats in the world, with wingspans of up to two and a half feet. To be fair, the government isn’t suggesting that anyone go out and slay bats as some sort of Machiavellian catharsis (as in The Purge). Rather, the killing spree is in response to complaints from local farmers, who allege that the bats pillage their mango and lychee orchards. Some Mauritians (like commenter John223789, responding to this Washington Post article) complain that the noisy bats upset their children and poop on their cars.

In an effort to appease the commercial fruit industry (and the likes of John223789), on Saturday the Mauritian government launched an island-wide cull of up to 18,000 bats. According to Mahen Seeruttun, the Mauritian minister of agro-industry and food security, the animals are responsible for 73 percent of damaged lychee orchards and 42 percent of damaged mango crops.

According to the latest science, however, those figures are a gross exaggeration.

The IUCN reports that bats are responsible for just 9 percent of lychee fruit damage and 11 percent of big mango tree damage. Its research shows that the majority of fruit loss on the island is due to other factors, such as high winds and over-ripening. Invasive species like ring-necked parakeets, black rats, and long-tailed macaques may also devour and maim significant amounts of the sweet produce. To top it off, there’s no evidence that killing crop-eating bats would actually put a dent in the problem: Years of bat culls in Australia have been “largely ineffective, since fruit bats are highly mobile and the killed bats are replaced by others from elsewhere,” reports the IUCN. (By the way, this is also why the reasoning behind shark culls is a load of bunk.)

The IUCN sent a delegation to Mauritius last week to try to find a solution that benefits both bats and farmers.

Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Federation, says that among the many problems with the cull is who is carrying it out. A special commando division of the island’s police force is supposed to be doing the shooting, but hunters, backyard fruit producers, and orchard owners are taking up arms illegally and killing the flying foxes with impunity—and they are using shotguns. These imprecise weapons are sure to leave other creatures maimed or dying slow, sloppy deaths. By any measure, this is a highly unethical way to manage wildlife populations.

Then there’s the timing. “Any cull between August and December will coincide with the breeding season, when there will be pregnant or lactating female bats,” the IUCN reports. So the cull not only might orphan many young bats that will then starve to death this year, but would also kill the healthy, reproducing females that are essential for the species’s recovery.

As of Sunday, shooters had brought down at least 100 bats on the north end of the island, says Tatayah. The government has not indicated what’s happening at other targeted sites, only that the public is “strongly advised” not to enter state and national forests. We know this from a press release issued last Friday that ended by saying the government “will not be held responsible for any incident which may occur as a result of non-compliance with this communiqué.”

Translation: If you go into the woods at night, you might get shot.

Even if you don’t venture into bat habitat, all of the hullabaloo could bring the creatures to you. “We’re already getting reports that some of the known roost sites are being abandoned as a result of the hunting,” says Dave Waldien, senior director of global programs at Bat Conservation International. “Bats are going to be searching out new areas, which means people are going to see more bats in more areas than they ever have before.”

Hear that, John223789? Better toss a sheet over your car and keep the kiddos inside as long as the purge continues.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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