The Fruit Bat is under threat of extinction on the island, the Forestry Department said yesterday. Forestry Officer Harris Nicolaou told the Mail that numbers have been rapidly declining, with only an estimated 3,500 remaining.

fruit bat
Fruit Bat

"We can say that numbers were far greater in the past and it is now an endangered species," he said.

"They are under threat from pesticides, hunters, farmers and general development, which forces them to try and set up other colonies elsewhere, which are less safe and suitable."

The fruit bat is mainly found in the Nicosia, Paphos and Limassol districts, with colonies ranging in size from 50 to 1,000.

Bats are associated with superstition in other cultures, but in Cyprus they are considered more as pests that destroy crops.

"That perception is actually wrong," said Nicolaou. "The fruit bat, as its name suggests, eats fruit, which is not suitable for commercial sale or human consumption.

It also actually protects crops by controlling numbers of the destructive Mediterranean fruit fly, which causes a great deal of damage."

The population of the once plentiful fruit bat has declined rapidly in the past century because of officially-sanctioned extermination programmes under British colonial rule before independence in 1960, which continued until 1993.

Cyprus has 16 species of bat, and is the only EU country to have the Egyptian fruit bat. All bat species are strictly protected by both European and national legislation.

The punishment for killing a bat on the island is a โ‚ฌ17,000 fine and/or three years' imprisonment.

"People need to be educated about bats' importance. If we lose the fruit bat, it would be a major loss," stated Nicolaou.

"If somebody has a problem, we urge them not to take the law into their own hands but to contact the Forestry Department for help."

Back in November, a protected colony of fruit bats was almost wiped out by unidentified gunmen using them for target practice, conservation groups and authorities said.

Dozens of the mammals were killed in a shooting spree in the fenced-off Vretsia cave, next to the Xeros River in Paphos. From a colony of about 60, only 10 to 15 survived.