Malaysia: Dwindling flying fox numbers, dying durian market

mei mei chu The Star 30 Sep 17;

PETALING JAYA: Flying foxes are disappearing from our forests and according to a team of researchers, this could be devastating to the multimillion-ringgit durian industry.

Flying fox specialist Dr Sheema Abdul Aziz said her team's research showed that the giant fruit bats, known as "keluang" in Malay, are major pollinators of durian trees.

Unfortunately, flying foxes are commonly killed as pests as there is a perception that their large form – they are the biggest of all the bat species – are destructive to the trees which produce the “king of fruits.”

Her study, which included placing camera traps in durian trees on Pulau Tioman, however, found the opposite was true: Not only are they non-destructive, but they play a crucial role in the pollination process.

And the decline in the flying fox population could lead to fewer or poorer-quality durians.

“Previously, people believed flying foxes eat the durian flowers but our study shows the exact opposite. They do not destroy the flowers, they merely drink the nectar by licking it with their tongues.

“The pollen from the flowers sticks to their fur while they feed on the nectar, and the pollen is transferred and cross-pollinated when the flying foxes move to feed on other trees,” Dr Sheema said.

She also noted that cross-pollination, the process of transferring pollen from the anther of a flower one plant to the stigma of the flower of another plant of the same species, is essential to the production of healthy fruit.

Previous studies have also shown that durian trees have evolved to be perfectly suited to bat pollination, making these animals the main and most effective pollinators for durian trees.

The durian industry “owes a huge debt” to these bats, said Dr Sheema.

However, flying foxes have become a rare sight in orchards across Peninsular Malaysia.

Orchard owner Hapsah @ Apisah Abdul Manap said that majestic flocks of flying foxes, numbering in the thousands, used to grace the skies of Pulau Tioman, but these have dwindled to the occasional sighting of flocks of only 20 to 30.

“Two years ago, you could see thousands of flying foxes leave the roost and emerging into the sky during sunset.

“It’s difficult to see flying foxes now; I don’t know where have they gone,” she said, adding that the only bats she sees now are the smaller varieties.

Hapsah, 52, said the durian harvest in her orchard in Kampung Juara has likewise dropped.

In Pahang, Jimmy’s Durian Orchard director Jimmy Loke said there are no flying foxes in his orchard, but he welcome these bats because of their importance in the cross-pollination process.

“Most orchard owners have no issues with bats, unless they have fruit trees like longan because the bats will eat all the fruits,” said Loke.

Some, however, were not aware of the essential role bats play in pollination.

Desaru Fruit Farm director Steve Er, whose farm is in Johor, said they used to erect nets to catch bats, especially crops like jambu air.

“Since then, the number of bats in our farm has been reduced, but we do not think the decline of bats is related to the poor durian harvest,” said the 31-year-old.

Four orchard owners The Star spoke to lamented the fact that their durian harvest this year was 30% to 80% less than last year’s harvest, but they attributed it to the prolonged rainy season.

Already on a decline due to climate change, these durian orchards could suffer even more if the population of flying foxes continues to deteriorate, Dr Sheema’s study suggests.

According to Dr Sheema, both the Malayan flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) and island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) are classified as “Endangered” under Malaysia's National Red List.

Flying foxes are severely threatened worldwide due to over-hunting and deforestation.

In Malaysia, they are killed as agricultural pests and hunted not only as exotic meat, but also consumed as medicine due to an unproven belief that they can cure respiratory problems like asthma.

“If flying foxes are hunted to extinction, it’s not hard to see that there could be a serious blow to the beloved king of fruits,” said Dr Sheema, who is also president of wildlife conservation organisation Rimba.

“In areas of Thailand where bats don’t exist, durian farmers are manually pollinating durian trees by hand,” she said. “It is an expensive and dangerous job”.

She added that in areas where there are no flying foxes, the cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) is the main pollinator for durian trees, but even these smaller bats are threatened by the quarrying of limestone karsts for cement and marble.

Dr Sheema, who led the study as part of her PhD research under France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, said the findings are important as they shed light on the importance of flying foxes as seed dispersers and pollinators in Malaysia’s rainforests.

According to University of Nottingham Malaysia associate professor Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, the disappearance of flying foxes could have disastrous repercussions on tropical ecosystems.

“The durian is a fascinating plant that, with its flowers pollinated by bats and its seeds dispersed by large animals like elephants, beautifully exemplifies the importance of plant-animal interactions,” said the professor, who also co-authored the study.

“We hope this study brings attention to the urgency of conserving flying foxes in South-East Asia,” he added.

For consumers, a further drop in the durian harvest could see prices go up as demand from locals and tourists alike has reportedly outstripped supply.

The Star previously reported that in Perak, Musing King and Black Thorn varieties are being sold at between RM60 and RM90 per kg while D101 and D24 are being sold at RM25 to RM28 per kg.

Adding to the increasing demand is China’s growing appetite for the pungent fruit.

Malaysia’s durian exports to China, consisting of frozen fruit and derivative products, were RM18.02mil in 2016 and is targeted to hit RM92.5mil by 2020.

Flying foxes to be upgraded to 'totally protected species'
mei mei chu The Star 30 Sep 17;

PETALING JAYA: The endangered Malayan flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) and island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) will soon be listed as “totally protected species” under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) is in the midst of amending Act 716 of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 and plans to upgrade its classification from “protected species” to “totally protected species”.

“The flying fox is currently listed under the First Schedule (protected species) of the Wildlife Conservation Act, but Perhilitan is proposing to upgrade the protection status of the flying fox to the Second Schedule (totally protected species),” director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim told The Star.

Once they are listed as a “totally protected species”, the hunting of flying foxes will be prohibited.

It is currently legal to hunt flying foxes with a hunting permit issued by Perhilitan.

According to Abdul Kadir, only Johor and Terengganu have banned the hunting of flying foxes.

“Since 2015, Perhilitan has stopped issuing hunting permits for flying foxes in various states based on the understanding of the breeding habits of the species and the dramatic population decline,” he said.

This, he added, was to allow a sufficient recovery period for the local bat population.

Abdul Kadir said Perhilitan has no plans to put a blanket ban on the hunting of flying foxes, but will not issue any permits until the law is amended.

The changes are expected to take effect next year.

We need more flying fox researchers
mei mei chu The Star 30 Sep 17;

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia has not enough researchers who specialise in the conservation ecology of flying foxes, and the lack of data has put local conservationists in a quandary over how to save the endangered megabat species.

Dr Sheema Abdul Aziz (pic below), the only ecologist in Malaysia specialising in flying fox conservation ecology, said the flying fox is a forgotten animal.

“It is an animal group that has been neglected for so long that we do not have enough information to be able to take the right conservation action,” she said.

“Flying foxes have been completely ignored by research and conservation groups because bats have a bad reputation – they are not cute and cuddly like tigers and elephants,” she said of the winged mammal.

She added that the flying fox is a victim of the negative perception of it as a health threat and a pest.


Yet, research has shown that flying foxes, along with other bat species, are major pollinators of the durian fruit, and their extinction could affect the nation’s durian supply.

“The current studies on flying foxes revolve around virology as they were found to be the host of the deadly Nipah virus that caused an outbreak here in 1998.

“However, we need more research to understand the beneficial aspects of flying foxes to overcome these negative perceptions, so we can determine effective conservation actions,” she said.

Dr Sheema, who has been studying flying foxes since 2013, took up the task for her PhD research as she was fascinated by their unique interaction with plants.

“I was interested in flying foxes when I learned bats are helping us by pollinating and producing durian fruit – it was something that many people did not know,” she said.

She said that studies overseas have noted the importance of flying foxes as seed dispersers and pollinators, but there is not enough local data to fully understand their ecological services, population size, and conservation methods here.

She added there was also an urgent need to research the conflict between flying foxes and fruit farmers who want the animal eradicated.

“We need to understand how much economic loss flying foxes are causing and come up with effective conflict mitigation options,” she said.