Photograph by Jacques de Speville
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The Mauritius flying fox lives only on the tiny island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean.

Photograph by Jacques de Speville

Opinion: Killing Thousands of Flying Foxes Only Hurts the Environment

A plan to cull bats on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius could make flooding there even worse and cause other problems, two scientists argue.

On the island of Mauritius (map), in the Indian Ocean, lives a curious-looking bat. It’s called a flying fox because it's rather large, with a wingspan of 2.5 feet (0.7 meter) and a fox-like face.

Native only to this tiny nation half the size of Rhode Island, the Mauritius flying fox (Pteropus niger) has been described as “flying liquid gold” after its yellow fur.

But it's not just pretty to look at. Bats such as the Mauritius flying fox provide crucial benefits to ecosystems, such as pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds of many plant species, some of which are found only in Mauritius. This is also important for restoring forests that have been destroyed. (Also see "To Know Bats Is to Love Them.")

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as vulnerable, but until 2013 it was classified as endangered. The change was due to a combination of factors that included a provision of not culling the population in the future.

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The flying fox—named for its fox-like face—is large for a bat, with a wingspan of 2.5 feet (0.7 meter).

Today, several experts estimate the species numbers in the few tens of thousands at best. The government of Mauritius has published a figure of 90,000, though that number is disputed by some, including the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

Now, Mauritius's government is in the process of killing as many as 18,000 bats on the unsupported belief that they are causing major damage to lychee and mango fruit crops, which are a main driver of the country's economy. Part of the cull will also occur inside protected areas.

However, there is little scientific data examining and quantifying the actual causes of fruit loss. In 2014, a pilot project by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation investigated the impact bats and other animals (such as birds and rats) have on fruit crops. The results revealed that bats' damage to fruits is "fairly low."

Here's why we believe killing these bats is wrong:

Bats help forests. Less than 2 percent of Mauritius is still forested. Deadly floods that affected the island in 2013 were likely worsened by widespread deforestation. Without forests, torrential rains wash off, erode, and flood vast areas, as well as damage human infrastructure.

Because they spread seeds and pollinate flowers, flying foxes are vital for regenerating lost forests. Killing them is against the logic of a nation with a vision of welfare for its people and for nature.

Meet the little red flying fox, a bat with a wingspan of up to three feet. Its wings take a lot of work to maintain - and one missed approach while getting a drink can land this bat in the mouth of a crocodile.

The flying fox is still vulnerable. The species is very much at risk of natural phenomena such as cyclones, as well as human pressure such as deforestation. Killing flying foxes makes no sense, given its very recent and tentative reclassification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and puts the species at an even greater risk.

Two species of flying fox have already gone extinct on Mauritius, and it surely does not want to go down in history as the country responsible for the first extinction of a flying fox in decades. (See 16 awesome pictures of bats.)

Bats aren't evil. Bats still suffer from an unjustified negative image, and thousands of people are working hard to change this. Today, scores of countries have successful bat-conservation programs around the world, which has improved the outlook for many species.

Consequently, beneficial services provided by bats, such as seed dispersal, pollination, and pest control, are on the rise. Killing Mauritius flying foxes not only sends a mistaken message, it also signals a disconnect of Mauritius with the modern world. (Read why we have nothing to fear from bats.)

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The Mauritius flying fox has been described as “flying liquid gold” after its yellow fur.

It's inhumane. When government officials kill flying foxes, the mortality does not end there: Many of those bats are lactating females, and their babies are doomed to a slow, starving death. Many bats will only be wounded and not killed immediately, so many more bats will die than only those immediately killed.

It goes against science. The government of Mauritius has a strong history of making management decisions based on solid scientific evidence, consulting with the best experts for policy and implementation. We urge the government of Mauritius to reconsider the decision and halt the cull before it is too late and the species becomes critically endangered.

Rodrigo A. Medellín is a senior professor at the Instituto de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, whose work is supported by the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. Paul A. Racey is Regius Professor of Natural History (Emeritus) at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of National Geographic.