A protected colony of rare fruit bats in Cyprus has almost been wiped out by unidentified gunmen using them for target practice, conservation groups and authorities said Thursday.
Dozens of the mammals, which are under threat of extinction, were killed in a shooting spree in a fenced-off cave in the western district of Paphos. From a colony of about 60, only 10 to 15 survived, conservation experts said.
They said the shooting probably occurred Sunday, but discovered the carnage only Wednesday.
"The cave is nowhere close to a residential area so I can only assume people were doing this for kicks," said Harris Nicolaou, a conservation officer with the Cypriot forestry department.
The population of the once plentiful fruit bat has declined rapidly in the past century because of government-sanctioned extermination programs under British colonial rule before independence in 1960.
While the mammal could also be found in the Middle East, Pakistan and north India, there were a maximum of 3,500 left in Cyprus, said Nicolaou, who tracks the mammals.
'Strictly protected species'
"This is now a strictly protected species, it is the only fruit bat we have, and the only fruit bat in an EU member state," he said.
Bats are associated with superstition in other cultures but in Cyprus, they are considered more as pests that eat fruit.
"That perception is actually wrong," said Nicolaou. "It will only eat over-ripe fruit."
The cave, which once had a colony of 300 bats, has been attacked three times previously in the past four years.
"There are still those who regard bats as vermin, but these were clearly people using these creatures as target practice," said Christos Charalambous, a member of the Green party who has tracked the colony for years.
"This is part of the wealth of our biodiversity, I cannot understand why it is happening."