People Are Killing Entire Families Of Bats Because They Think They 'Cure' Asthma

"They’ve been decimated."

When Ian Singleton drives down a certain road in Medan, Indonesia, on the island of North Sumatra, he sees something that’s been upsetting him for years — hundreds of large flying foxes (also called fruit bats) locked up in tiny cages, sitting right next to the roadside.

The bats are for sale, but they’re not being sold as pets. In North Sumatra, as well as other parts of Southeast Asia, people buy flying foxes for their meat, which they believe cures asthma, despite there being no scientific proof of the claim.

Flying foxes in roadside cages
A roadside cage of flying foxes in Medan, Indonesia | Shayne Loeki

And once the bats are purchased, they’re often killed in a horrific way.

“They’ll pull them out of the cage and kill them on the spot,” Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, told The Dodo. “I’ve driven past them, and I’ve seen them [the vendors] skinning them alive. It was pretty shocking to see that.”

Cage of flying foxes
A roadside market selling flying foxes in Medan, Indonesia | Shayne Loeki

While it might be hard for some people to relate to flying foxes, Singleton describes them as highly intelligent, social animals who form strong bonds with family members and friends.

“They have very complicated social lives,” Singleton said. “When you get these big roosts of a few hundred animals, they all know their neighbors very, very well, and they come back to the same branches every single night.”

A flying fox in a roadside cage
A flying fox looking through the bars of his cage in Medan, Indonesia | Elizabeth Claire Alberts

Brian Pope, director of the Lubee Bat Conservancy, a bat research and conservation center in the United States, echoes Singleton’s statements.

“They’re very gregarious — they like to be in large groups,” Pope told The Dodo. “They groom each other, and they form bonds.”

A mother bat with her offspring
A mother bat with her baby at Lubee Bat Conservancy's haven | Lubee Bat Conservancy

At the same time, each flying fox has a distinct personality, and it’s easy to tell individuals apart, according to Pope, who is currently caring for 70 flying foxes at the Lubee Bat Conservancy’s sanctuary.

“Some of them are a bit more shy, and some are going to be right in your face, hoping you have a piece of cantaloupe for them,” Pope said.

Mother and baby bat cuddling
Lubee Bat Conservancy

Despite the flying fox’s intelligence and close family bonds, people in North Sumatra regularly trap them with nets and transport them to Medan — one of North Sumatra’s major cities — to be sold in the markets.

Unfortunately, many of the flying foxes don’t survive the journey from the forest to the city, which can take up to eight hours, according to Singleton.

“I remember driving past when they were unloading a truck, and there was a pile of them about one and a half meters [6 feet] high of dead bats that just hadn’t made the trip,” Singleton said. “They died en route from exhaustion and dehydration.”

Bats in roadside cage
Bats for sale in Medan, Indonesia | Shayne Loeki

Once the bats arrive in Medan, they can spend months living inside those cramped roadside cages as they wait to be killed. And inside the cages, food and water is scarce, according to Singleton.

“They [the vendors] put a little banana on the end of a stick and poke it through the mesh, and try and give a bit to each fruit bat,” Singleton said. “I don’t remember seeing a decent water source for these animals, so they’re probably extremely dehydrated.”

Bats in roadside cage in Indonesia
Bats in a small cage in Medan, Indonesia | Elizabeth Claire Alberts

Besides the cruelty of the bat market, fruit bats play a pivotal role in the local ecosystem because of the way they spread seeds and pollen: When bats eat native fruits, they drop the seeds around the forest, which helps more fruit trees grow.

“They’re absolutely essential to pollination and seed dispersal,” Pope said. “Ninety percent of the growth of the rainforest in Central and South America, and in tropical forests in Southeast Asia, are generated by bats — it’s due to bats spreading seeds and pollinating flowers.”

But when fruit bats are wiped out, it’s not easy for them to regenerate.

Bat in roadside cage in Indonesia
A flying fox trapped in a cage in Medan, Indonesia | Elizabeth Claire Alberts

“They only produce one pup a year,” Pope said. “So when you’re taking out hundreds of thousands of these bats in just a few months, they don’t have the capacity to build their population back up.”

“They used to have colonies of hundreds of thousands of bats, but now you’re lucky to find them in the thousands, because they’ve been decimated in their range,” Pope added. “It’s been a long-held position in Southeast Asia that fruit bats cure asthma. I can’t tell you exactly where that came from or how that belief came to be, but it has been a major issue for the decline in fruit bats for years and years.”
 

Bat in cage in Indonesia
A flying fox trapped in a cage in Medan, Indonesia | Elizabeth Claire Alberts

Singleton, who’s lived in North Sumatra for 22 years, has seen this population decrease for himself.

“The big fruit bats were always considered common, but I know that even in the time that I’ve been in Indonesia, the local populations have gone extinct,” he said.

Unfortunately, very little is being done to protect fruit bats in North Sumatra. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as “near threatened,” the Indonesian government isn’t giving these animals the protection they need, according to Pope, and the fruit bat trade isn’t monitored in any way.

Flying fox at haven
A flying fox at Lubee Bat Conservancy's haven | Lubee Bat Conservancy

“There are no regulations against hunting these animals,” Pope said. “If there are, they’re very limited or they’re not enforced, because these animals just don’t have protection. It’s a shame because nobody really understands how important these animals really are.”

Despite the huge issues bats face in North Sumatra, people like Singleton are working hard to protect them.

As the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Singleton is in the process of building a haven for eight rescued orangutans who can’t be released back into the wild due to physical injuries — and he hopes to add a spacious enclosure for rescued flying foxes.

Mother and baby fruit bats
Mother and baby flying foxes at Lubee Bat Conservancy's haven | Lubee Bat Conservancy

While Singleton doesn’t believe rescuing a few flying foxes will save the species, he hopes that something else will — education.

“The idea is that we get people there [at the haven] and we explain how intelligent they are, how complex their social lives are,” Singleton said. “I think if we can get people face-to-face with these fruit bats, we could persuade at least 50 percent of them not to buy them again, so I’m hopeful that we can bring demand down by 50 percent in five years. I think the only way to deal with this issue is through education.”

To help make this haven a reality, and protect flying foxes living in North Sumatra, you can make a donation.