Weighing in on bats and durians

NOVEMBER 6 — Durians are inextricably tied to the Malaysian national identity. Love it or hate it, you’re bound to have at least one encounter with the “King of Fruits.”

A longgok in the pasar malam, as tempoyak at the neighbourhood nasi campur, or as crepé bought from the stall smack in the middle of Mid Valley Megamall.

As for me, my introduction to this gastronomical delight was through spending school holidays in my uncle’s Jerantut orchard. I have fond memories of wheelbarrowing on his land looking for freshly-ripe durians. On occasions, my sister and I would be startled by the sudden rustling of the leaves followed by a hard “thud”; signalling the beginning of a treasure hunt.

Since those days, durians have come a long way. They have transformed from a seasonal delicacy to a prized commodity. Barely five years ago, the thought that a kilo of durian could cost RM50 would be met with bewildered looks. But today, this has become the new norm.

Indeed, due to local and international (mostly from China) demand, the durian has gone mainstream with the industry generating a whopping RM1.97 billion in 2017. To put things into perspective, the value of exported durians was higher than rubber tyres, motorcycle parts and refrigerators in the same year.

A thorny conundrum

But based on a recent report, the production of this highly sought-after fruit is not as benign as we think it is.

To have a constant supply of durians, you’ll need durian trees. And to plant those trees, you’ll probably need land.

But what happens when land is a finite resource?

A report suggests that land has been cleared in environmentally sensitive areas for durian orchards. Some of which are habitats for the critically endangered Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) and also provide indispensable ecosystem services to arguably the whole of Pahang.

That’s not the least of our problems though. As we clear our forests, we might lose durian pollinators as well.

According to Rimba, a non-profit research group, nectar feeding bats (Pteropus spp. and Eonycteris spp.) are very efficient pollinators of durians. The team observed that their elongated muzzles and tongues make them perfectly adapted to access nectar and pollinate delicate durian flowers without thoroughly damaging them.

In contrast, plantain squirrels, an alternative pollinator, bite through the flowers to obtain nectar. Bats were also observed to be the most frequent visitor to durian flowers thus providing crucial services to our durian industry that I argue have been under-rated and unrecognised.

Instead, bats have been treated as pests since the beginning of agriculture. Now the irony is that by replacing forests — crucial habitat for bats — with orchards, farmers are effectively clearing their stock of efficient durian pollinators.

No bats, fewer durians.

So, how do we ensure our durians will be enjoyed for years to come? How do we incentivise farmers to reduce land clearing and bat-shooting?

Certification: A panacea?

When there were growing global concerns about the sustainability of palm oil at the turn of the century, the world turned to certification. This came in the form of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which brought together members of the industry to set internationally agreed upon standards.

Standards which once met provided access to environmentally conscious markets. Additionally, large companies like Nestlé, Unilever and Starbucks exclusively purchase RSPO certified palm oil.

Could there be a similar sustainable certification for our durians? Why not?

It is up to us, the durian lovers, to demand such measures. Policymakers, producers, processors, exporters, consumers and NGOs should come together and agree upon measures that lead to the sustainability of the durian industry. Once this is done, there needs to be enforcement, auditing and marketing of this certification.

Only then can we ensure that any step forward for durian production will not be met with negative environmental consequences.

Interconnectedness

Durians were once growing wild in our forests. It is us humans who have brought them out, improved upon their variety and commercialised it for the world.

What some of us fail to realise is that their pollinators followed them out too. So, the blatant removal of these species either through habitat destruction or targeted pest control could spell the end of this billion-ringgit industry before it even takes off.

No doubt, the king of fruits will be enjoyed for years to come, both by locals and international tourists. But not for long if we disregard the interconnectedness of man and Nature; perfectly exhibited by our durian orchards, bats and surrounding forests.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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