Mauritius, a volcanic island nation in the Indian Ocean, is known for its beaches, lagoons and reefs. The mountainous interior encompasses Black River Gorges National Park, with rainforests, waterfalls, hiking trails and native fauna like the flying fox. The capital, Port Louis, blends foreign influences and offers sites such as the Champs de Mars horse track, colonial Eureka plantation and 18th-century botanical garden.
Despite a lack of scientific evidence and widespread public opposition, the government of Mauritius has embarked on the slaughter of thousands of Mauritius Fruit Bats, which is putting the future of the globally threatened species at risk, says a coalition of NGOs.
The conservation organisations – the African Conservation Centre, African Wildlife Foundation, Birdlife International, Conservation International and WWF – are calling on the government of Mauritius to immediately halt its unjustified cull.
Under pressure from the country’s powerful fruit farming lobby, the authorities are planning to kill 18,000 fruit bats before the end of November. They have already ordered members of an elite police unit and soldiers into the forests to begin the cull – even though the species is protected in Mauritius and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The government claims the cull is necessary because the fruit bat population has soared to 90,000 and is now causing significant economic damage to Mauritius’ fruit industry.
However, research indicates that the bats’ impact on commercial fruit crops is minimal, while the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation estimates the population is closer to 50,000 – meaning the cull could wipe out almost 40 percent of the species. In addition, according to a study on the island, 80 percent of Mauritians oppose culling the bats.
“This catastrophic cull of the Mauritius Fruit Bat is indefensible and must end now,” said Frederick Kumah, WWF African Regional Director. “The people of Mauritius do not support this cull and nor do the world’s scientists and conservationists. There is no acceptable reason to continue with this destruction.”
Scientists dispute the government’s population estimates because it uses a disturbance-based counting method, which results in double-counting and inflated estimates when assessing Mauritius Fruit Bats. Conservationists also believe the bat’s remaining habitat could not sustain such high numbers.
In another blow to the government’s rationale, initial results from a recent preliminary study show that the bats cause far less damage to crops than is commonly believed. While fruit bats are responsible for around 11 percent of the damage on big mango trees and 3 percent on small trees, the vast majority of fruit losses are due to late harvesting, high winds and other fruit-eating animals – such as rats and birds.
The cull is also being conducted during the season when many females are pregnant or feeding their young – shooting lactating females will leave countless orphaned bats to starve to death.
“Killing bats in Mauritius goes against common sense and global trends protecting bats and valuing the critical environmental services they provide,” said Rodrigo Medellin, co-chair of the IUCN Bat Specialist Group. “Mauritius cannot afford to see this fruit bat go extinct as it would have a devastating impact on biodiversity.”
The bat plays a critical role in maintaining the ecosystem by pollinating and dispersing the seeds of many of the country’s native plants. Without a thriving fruit bat population, the health of the country’s remaining natural habitat would be undermined.
By drastically reducing overall numbers, the cull could seriously threaten the fruit bat’s longterm survival by leaving the species more vulnerable to sudden shocks, such as cyclones, which have been predicted to increase in frequency and intensity in the future.
“This decision sets a dangerous precedent - it could be one of the first times that culling of a globally threatened species has been authorized against all the scientific evidence and when there are more effective alternatives available,” said Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
The government has implemented some netting, which is by far the most effective method for protecting fruit crops. These initiatives need to be refined and extended, while other approaches should also be considered – such as reducing tree sizes and using deterrents and break crops, which have been successfully implemented elsewhere.
More effective harvesting and management of fruit crops could also make a major difference to future production.
“This cull threatens to destroy Mauritius’ enviable reputation for effective and science-based conservation as well as the future of the fruit bat and all the plants that depend on it,” said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, Country Director of WWF Madagascar. “This mass cull is a short-sighted decision taken for non-scientific reasons, but if it is not reversed immediately it could have catastrophic long term consequences.”