Release The Bats
November 23, 2015
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The Birthday Party’s 1981 ditty entitled Release The Bats first alerted me to the glowering talent of Nick Cave, an artist whose career I have followed ever since. I used to think about the song when I was sitting at the pool bar sipping my sundown cocktail in Mauritius because at 18.05, right on cue, a procession of fruit bats would loom in from the horizon and settle in the palm trees above us.
They make an impressive spectacle in flight but there is nothing elegant or graceful in the way that they come into land. They crash into the trees and shuffle down the branches until they have found a comfortable spot and wait. We observed that there were far more bats around at the start of our holiday than we had seen on previous visits. By the end of our visit we were lucky to see a couple.
The bat in question is a Mauritian Fruit Bat and it appears that our visit to the Indian Ocean island coincided with a bit of a stushie between the government and conservationists. There was once three species of bat on the Mascerene islands but now the Mauritian Fruit bat (pteropus niger) and pteropus rodricensis which can be found on Rodrigues island are all that are left. The Mauritian bat is the only endemic mammal species on the island.
Our initial impressions were correct. There has been an increase in the island’s population, mainly caused by the absence of major cyclones on the island and an increase in the availability of their food stuffs. The clue to what they eat is in their name and their voracious appetite and increasing numbers has caused a serious threat to the livelihood of the island’s fruit farmers.
In late October and early November the Mauritian government started on a cull with the aim of reducing numbers by some 20% or 18,000. This has caused outrage amongst conservationists and a petition was got up with some 80,000 or so signing it. The protestors claim that the government’s assessment of bat population numbers were flawed and over-stated and that it is not just the bats that are eating the farmers’ crops but other fruit eating animals such as ring-necked parakeets, common mynah, red-whiskered bulbul and rats are eating their fair share. They claimed that if the cull went ahead then the bat’s very existence would be imperilled.
The bats’ supporters also point out that the animals are important pollinators and spread the fruit seeds – judging by the state of the palm leaves and the ground below this is indisputable – and that a mass cull would imbalance the natural eco-system.
So is culling a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Nature has a way of restoring order as Malthus observed in relation to human population. Employing netting or growing smaller trees might be alternative solutions. But governments, like governments around the world, like to be seen to be doing something and so the cull went ahead. And this is why we saw many more bats at the start of our holiday than at the end.