The world's largest species of fruit bat, also known as the flying fox, could be driven to extinction in Malaysia as early as 2015 unless the government bans its hunting, a scientific study published Wednesday said.
Flying foxes, which have a wingspan of up to five feet (1.5 meters), eat fruit and nectar. In the process they disperse seeds around a vast area and pollinate trees, making them key to the well-being of the rainforest ecosystem in this part of Southeast Asia.
They are commonly hunted for food, medicine and sport in Malaysia and many other countries in Southeast Asia. Hunting is legal in all Malaysian states except Sarawak on Borneo island.
"Our models suggest that hunting activity over the period between 2002 and 2005 in peninsular Malaysia is not sustainable and that local populations of (the bats) are vulnerable to extinction," said Jonathan Epstein of the New York-based Wildlife Trust, who led the study.
Wildlife Trust is an international organization of scientists working on the conservation of biodiversity. According to its Web site, the trust conducts research on the relationships between wildlife, ecosystems and human health.
Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist, surveyed 33 roost sites and repeatedly counted the numbers of bats at eight sites between 2003 and 2007 for the study, published in the latest issue of the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.
Chris Shepherd of conservation group TRAFFIC in Kuala Lumpur welcomed the report, saying "it is incredibly important for people to realize the essential role fruit bat play in the ecosystem ... and they are a very vulnerable species."
"It is great to be urging the Malaysian government to put a blanket ban on hunting," he said. "They live in colonies, so once a hunter finds then, then it's easy to wipe them out."
Epstein's team found that based on the average number of hunting licenses issued, around 22,000 flying foxes were killed in peninsular Malaysia each year. This rate of killing was unsustainable even with the most optimistic population level of 500,000 assumed by their projections, Epstein said.
Even without taking into account illegal hunting and the killing of flying foxes as agricultural pests, projections suggest that this level of hunting will drive the species to extinction in between six and 81 years.
To save them from extinction in Malaysia, Epstein and his colleagues recommend at least a temporary ban on hunting flying foxes to allow the population to recover and to allow for a more comprehensive assessment.
The Department of National Parks and Wildlife, which participated in Epstein's study, is currently reviewing its policy on bat hunting.
"Our study illustrates that bats, like other migratory species, require comprehensive protection by regional management plans across their range," Epstein said.