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Scientists say that the world's largest bat, the six-foot Pteropus vampyrus, is threatened with extinction at the hands of bat hunters across the Far East. They have called for fewer bat-hunting permits to be issued by local governments.

Despite the name, P vampyrus is not a blood-drinking bat like some South American species, and isn't even carnivorous. It mainly lives on fruit, and is also known as a "flying fox". Fruitbat meat is considered a tasty treat by many in southeast Asia, and some also believe that it cures asthma.

P vampyrus is thus hunted, typically using shotguns, for food, medicinal purposes and just for sport. Fruit farmers also kill the winged scrumpers to stop them eating crops.

Dr Jonathan Epstein of the Wildlife Trust and his colleagues have now carried out a four-year study of P vampyrus in Malaysia. This involved carrying out a regular census at popular bat roosting sites, and also the tagging-up of seven selected bats with convict-style satellite tracking devices.

The batty boffins also considered the numbers of bat-hunting licences issued by the Malaysian government each year during the study. All Malaysian states except Sarawak in Borneo allow vampyrus hunting, as do other nearby nations such as Indonesia. Some 22,000 vampyrus death-warrants are issued each year just in peninsular Malaysia.

"Our models suggest that hunting activity over the period between 2002 and 2005 in Peninsular Malaysia is not sustainable, and that local populations of Pteropus vampyrus are vulnerable to extinction," says Epstein.

According to the doc, disappearance of the big bats would also have negative effects on the region's rainforests as they distribute seeds through the medium of batshit.

"They are critical to the propagation of rainforest plants," he told the BBC.

Epstein and his colleagues say that at least a temporary ban on bat-shooting should be considered, and that all the countries where they live should cooperate on protecting them.

The scientists' research is published in detail in the Journal of Applied Ecology. ®

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