In horror films, a bat flying into someone’s hair is the stuff of nightmares. But dead bats, preserved with their wings outstretched and affixed to hair barrettes, are now in demand online.
“It’s disturbing,” says Joanna Coleman, a bat specialist and professor at Queens College, in New York City. “Many bats reproduce slowly,” she says, so the animals are vulnerable to overexploitation.
Last October alone, more than 500 listings of dead bats appeared on Etsy, and 71 on eBay; a few ran on other platforms. Many of the advertisements mentioned Halloween tie-ins, and some touted dead bats as Christmas gifts, according to new, unpublished research from an International Union for Conservation of Nature bat research group that Coleman co-leads. Funds obtained by the Canadian nonprofit Monitor supported the team’s ongoing trade analysis.
Bats often are sold as framed specimens or mounted with their wings spread, but in searches last year, Coleman says she also “saw bat hats, barrettes, and garter belts.” Some ads included multiple bats. In others, bats were displayed in tiny coffins.
More than 130 ads featured painted woolly bats—an Asian insect-eating species known for its striking orange and black coloring—and it’s possible that 117 other postings were for those bats too, says Nistara Randhawa, a data scientist at University of California Davis who’s been scouring e-commerce platforms for listings of painted woolly bats, in particular. Most people offering bat products online appear to be in the U.S., she says.
It’s unclear who’s hunting the bats, who does the taxidermy, and who manages the international shipping from their source countries in Asia, says biologist Susan Tsang, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and a member of the IUCN bat trade working group. Painted woolly bats aren’t bred commercially, and they live alone or in family units of three during part of the year—an adult male and a female and their one offspring—which means hunters can’t collect large numbers at once.
Painted woollies aren’t known to harbor diseases that can sicken humans, Tsang says, but if the bats are stacked with other wild animals in stressful, unsanitary conditions, the potential for disease transmission between species rises dramatically.
A growing threat?
Although painted woolly bats live in numerous countries across Asia, in 2019, the IUCN listed them as “near threatened” and decreasing. The “souvenir trade” is one of their main threats. Countries’ policies about the legality or illegality of trapping and exporting the bats vary widely. Coleman worries that based on the new research, the species may already be in worse shape than previously known. “I have no idea what the true scale of this trade is,” she says, but “it could be significant enough that maybe it’s truly endangered.”
“The numbers we’re seeing are undoubtedly just a part of it,” Coleman says. “There have been times when, while verifying these listings, I have broken down and cried.”
Although many of the online ads the IUCN team saw were for painted woolly bats (or were incorrectly identified as such), hundreds weren’t. The team is working to find out whether any other listed bats are species, such as flying foxes, that are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act or under CITES, the treaty that regulates the global wildlife trade. If so, that would raise further questions about the legality of the bat trade, Coleman says. Moreover, owing to possible disease risks, importing any bat into the U.S. requires permits from the Centers for Disease Control and from the Fish and Wildlife Service, she says.
In a statement, eBay told National Geographic that it works to keep illegal animal sales off its site with policies that prohibit sales of endangered or protected animals. The company noted that it is one of the 47 businesses that have joined the coalition to end wildlife trafficking online.
Etsy, another member of the coalition, declined to comment. Its policies say it doesn’t allow sales of products made from endangered or threatened animals.
How new are bat sales?
Bats have long been sold in local markets in their range countries for meat, souvenirs, or traditional medicine. (Learn more: Bats are being killed so people can suck their blood.) Yet the online trade amplifies the threat to bats and creates a different and greater demand. There’s a niche market for these items, and the internet helps it flourish, Tsang says.
The scale of the bat trade as a whole is hard to ascertain, but anecdotally, it seems that the online piece of it is growing, says Rodrigo Medellín, a National Geographic Explorer at Large and professor of ecology and conservation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “In the last six months or so, I have seen more ads, and more people have come to me saying what can we do? How do we control and stop this?” he says.
“Almost nothing is known of the potential impacts of the souvenir trade on bats,” researchers wrote in the journal Oryx in 2015. Information is “urgently needed.” During the previous year, according to their findings, many species were listed on eBay, and most sellers were based in the U.S., with others in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Then too, painted woolly bats were especially popular.
In 2017, Newsweek reported that between mid-2000 and 2013, the U.S. imported almost 115,000 bats. About 60,000 were identified as specimens for scientific or museum collections. Most of the rest were dead animals, shipped whole.
Since then, thousands of bats have shown up for sale online. A report in 2021 in Frontiers in Veterinary Science tallied 237 bat listings on eBay between May 11 and May 25, 2020 (totaling 4,467 specimens), with sellers in Australia, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. Some posts included up to 50 bats.
The distinctive colors of painted woolly bats make them relatively easy to identify, so they’re a good candidate for trade monitoring, Coleman says. She hopes the bat group’s research will help win painted woollies greater protections and better tracking under CITES—particularly, she says, “because the volume and players involved in the trade are poorly known.”