Fruit bats have a brutally hard life in Sulawesi, an island in the heart of Indonesia. A remarkable 22 species of fruit bats live on the island, and some of them are found nowhere else. But their numbers are being decimated by overhunting for the commercial “bushmeat” trade, and their treatment on the way to market can only be described as torture.
Now a previously untouched colony of some 10,000 Sulawesi fruit bats (Acerodon celebensis) has been discovered by commercial hunters on a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Sulawesi. And the bats are being destroyed with frightening speed.
Scott Heinrichs, founder of the Flying Fox Conservation Fund on Sulawesi, spent more than a decade documenting the horrible toll that overhunting is taking on these intelligent and beneficial animals.
After capture by hunters, the bats are packed into bamboo crates for the journey to market, a trip that can take up to four days in blistering heat without water or food. Those that survive face even worse treatment as they are inhumanely slaughtered and prepared for sale. Heinrichs describes their treatment as heartbreaking.
He was alerted to the latest threat by Marcy Summers, director of Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, an organization working to protect the lands and waters around Mount Tompotika in central Sulawesi. She said the colony of some 10,000 Sulawesi flying foxes has been roosting for years in trees on the small island off the coast. The bats fly to the mainland at dusk each evening to feed in the rainforest.
Although the local people do not eat the bats, commercial hunters discovered the island about two years ago. They erected four enormous poles to hang nets above the roost trees. In the past 18 months, she said, they have taken thousands of bats from the island for the bushmeat market in North Sulawesi.
“The colony has been devastated, and the remaining bats recently left the island entirely,” Marcy said. The locals say that although the bats occasionally left the island over the years during windy seasons, they returned when the winds settled. Perhaps that is why the surviving bats departed – but “we are very concerned that the intense hunting pressure may have decimated bat numbers and/or disturbed their haven so much that they may be gone forever. Only time will tell.”
But there is hope. The Alliance has been working with villagers in the area to raise awareness about the importance of bats and their conservation. Ironically, just as the bats left the island, the villagers had begun tentative moves toward permanently protecting the island’s bats. Those plans are moving ahead, but much work remains to be done.