PETALING JAYA, Oct 2 — Economically important durian harvests could be affected if the endangered flying fox population continues to dwindle, according to a study by wildlife advocacy group Rimba.

The group has documented the island flying fox (Ptreopus hypomelanus) pollinating durian flowers from cameras it installed on durian trees in Tioman Island.

Rimba president Sheema Abdul Aziz warned that reduced harvests could affect the industry amid the growing demand for durian locally and abroad, if steps were not taken to mitigate the declining number of the bat species, also called fruit bats.

“The species is severely threatened by hunting and deforestation. They are often sold and eaten as exotic meat by those who believe they can cure asthma and other respiratory problems,” she said.

“They are also killed for being agricultural pests, as some claim they feed on cultivated fruits. These factors have led to a severe decline in flying fox populations.”

Sheema said the new study rubbished the theory flying foxes were too large to play such a role, adding the creatures were effective at complementing smaller species.

The study, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox enhances fruit production of the economically important durian”, is meant to prove the positive impact flying foxes have on durian harvests.

According to the International Tropical Fruits Network, Malaysia raked in US$17 million (RM72 million) from exporting 20,000 tonnes of durian to China alone in 2015.

“The economic profits are owed to the bats. They play a vital role as seed dispensers and pollinators in rainforests,” Sheema said.

“Cave nectar bats are being wiped out due to limestone mining. And with flying foxes coming under pressure, how much has durian production already suffered from declining bat populations?”

The killing, possession and sale of the animal and its parts are punishable by a maximum six months’ jail term or a maximum fine of RM10,000.