Shenton Safaris

Chasing bats in paradise

Mauritian fruit bat on a palm tree, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

Written by Kim Harrisberg, photographs by Jeff Harrisberg

It is around 10pm in Mauritius. Most of my family members have left the near-gluttonous food extravaganza that is the resort buffet and are heading to their rooms to digest. My father, however, has different plans.

Since our arrival on this tiny piece of paradise a few days earlier, we had noticed Dracula-like creatures unlike anything we had seen before: the Mauritius fruit bat, with an impressive wingspan of 80cm.

Our first encounter with them was on the drive in from the airport. They were not flying, however – their golden fur-covered bodies were dangling from an electrical wire near a plantation like swollen fruit.

Mauritian fruit bat eating palm fruit, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

In October 2016, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation estimated that the fruit bat population stood at around 62,500. Once also indigenous to the nearby Réunion Island, they became extinct there at the beginning of the nineteenth century owing to hunting and deforestation. What remains of the species on Mauritius has now been classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Tonight, my father, the avid birding photographer, is going bat chasing. He needs a talented torch-holder – which is where I come in.

We gather our equipment and head towards the beachfront. The imposing palm trees stand proudly like nature’s skyscrapers against the black sky. Beach sand squelches between our toes. The humid air clings to our skin like a sticky coat.

“Shine there!” my dad suddenly commands, like an eco-friendly sergeant.

I beam the torch upwards and we catch glints of fur, eyes and tongues. A shiver runs up my spine. Apparently the bat propaganda (think blood-sucking, hair-tangling, children-eating cave dwellers) is ingrained deep within me.

Mauritian fruit bat on a palm tree, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

My dad’s camera (nearly the same size as the trunk of the palm tree) begins snapping. Soon a crowd, comprised largely of 7-year-old children, has gathered around us.

Pipistrello!” shouts the Italian kid. “Vlermuis!” shouts the Afrikaans kid. “Chauve souris!” shouts the French kid.

They begin to lighten the important and stressful load of the torch-bearer by pointing towards the trees in which the bats are hanging. Soon we are a strange army comprised of multilingual 7-year-olds, a dogged and passionate would-rather-be-a-photographer doctor, and an amused, yet highly-skilled, torch holder ricocheting between trees as the furry creatures moved between the various hanging seed pods from which they gathered their dinner.

After a few hours, the army depletes. The buffets are digested. The photographs are analysed. And instead of the fear-inducing, fang-filled, blood-sucking bats I expect to see on the screen, my father’s camera reveals a creature that looks bizarrely just like my late Yorkshire terrier: Large brown eyes framed by a fluffy yellow mane; a tiny pink tongue licking the palm tree pods like an ice-cream; malevolent-looking winged hands that now seem dexterous and quaint.

The wonder of a single photograph.

Mauritian fruit bat flying to palm tree, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

How does language shape conversations around conservation? Fruit bats, it turns out, are essential to pollination and their droppings help germinate new seeds across the island. Their existence forms part of the carefully woven biodiversity web of the island’s endemic species. Yet, the Dracula-like portrayal of the bat has been a largely harmful one, influencing the way locals and government approach conservation strategies.

In 2015, the government culled 20,000 bats in the name of protecting local fruit produce. Local farmers and government agreed that the population had grown large enough to justify the culling. However, conservationists believe the population size was exaggerated, and that the culling only made the vulnerable species more vulnerable during the regular cyclones that sweep across the island in the first quarter of the year.

Since then, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has set up a Bat Education project which is essentially a PR campaign to change the negative perception of the fruit bat.

Ultimately, an exaggerated recognition of the harm caused by a vampiresque flying mammal on the fruit production of the island impacts debates around netting versus culling. Culling has been called “catastrophic” and “indefensible” by conservationists, based on the already tiny population size of the bat, while netting is seen as somewhat of a middle-ground between agricultural production and conservation.

Mauritian fruit bat on a palm tree, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

We make our way back to the room. En route, a young Italian man sees my dad’s amusingly large camera and asks him what he was photographing.

“Ah, the fruit bat! Look at this photo,” says the Italian, before taking out his iPhone. The image beaming up towards us is one of the photographs my father had taken maybe one hour earlier. It turns out one of the 7-year-olds had (with consent) snapped a photograph of the image from the back of my dad’s camera with his cellphone, before sharing it with a large group of Italian tourists on the island.

“It is beautiful,” says the Italian man before bidding us goodnight and heading off into the darkness.

It turns out news spreads quickly, as do changed perceptions.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, on this same island, there were perceptions around another winged creature – the dodo. Now extinct, the dodo has become emblematic of the harms of hunting and habitat destruction.

Perhaps the Mauritius fruit bat will become emblematic of lessons learned.

Up close of Mauritian fruit bat on a palm tree, Mauritius

© Jeff Harrisberg

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