Australian trade in exotic bats continues despite disease risk: 'Repulsive'

Government ministers are not answering questions about the niche industry, despite expert warnings about disease risks.

Federal authorities are continuing to allow a niche import trade of exotic taxidermy bats into Australia including species that are potential vectors of zoonotic diseases.

While the bodies are treated with ionising radiation to kill disease once they reach our shores, the practice of catching wild bats is compromising the health of Indonesian and South East Asian workers who catch them, experts warn.

Although this may seem like a far-off problem, there is now a well-documented risk of disease movement across international borders — illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic which is believed to have originated in wild animals captured in China.

Background - a Getty image of a crowd in Sydney. Inset - a woman holding two framed bats in a Facebook post
Scientists are concerned about the spread of viruses from bats being caught and then sold online in Australia. Source: Facebook/Getty

Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, a zoonotic disease expert at Adelaide University, warns bats like other wildlife species can carry diseases, so increasing interactions between humans and bats is actually driving the emergence of diseases with animal origin.

“People buying them might think the bat is dried and there are no more viruses or bacteria but they are putting the person who actually hunted and grabbed the bat at risk,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

Bat import rules unchanged despite disease risks

In the wake of the pandemic, the department of agriculture (DAFF) has increased red tape for importing live pets in Australia because of their rabies risk. But it has not made any recent changes to importation rules surrounding taxidermy bats because it believes current regulations “effectively mitigate the associated biosecurity risks” once the bodies reach our shores.

Despite experts raising concerns that the practice could indirectly impact Australian animals, federal agriculture minister Murray Watt declined to answer questions from Yahoo News Australia. The office of health minister Mark Butler is yet to respond to a query about the potential human impact.

Common viruses associated with bats in Asia and Africa:

Facebook post featuring taxidermy bat pulled from site

Aside from disease concerns, hunting bats for the taxidermy industry is pushing a number of species towards extinction.

When a Queensland importer shared an image to Facebook on Saturday showing a young woman holding two framed bats she purchased from the store, the post received a barrage of criticism. “Cruel and unethical,” one person wrote. “I can’t think of anything more repulsive,” someone else added.

On Monday, the post was taken down. The company declined an interview request from Yahoo and did not respond to written questions. “We sell nothing illegal. We respect everyone’s right to an opinion and won’t be drawn into vitriolic conversation,” it said in a text message.

Although the company’s website states it “does not trade in endangered, rare or otherwise protected wildlife” one of the bats featured in the photo is a painted woolly bat Kerivoula picta that has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as near threatened.

An image of PPE clad workers at an airport in Wuhan, China.
Diseases have the ability to cross international borders like the coronavirus did in 2019-2020. Source: Getty

Because the species is listed by the IUCN and not the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multinational agreement between governments, the company is not required to obtain a permit to import the animals into Australia as long as they are dead.

Conservation status of traded bats unknown

The online trade is more far-reaching than just one Australian business. In 2021, Dr Chaber led a study that found several vulnerable bat species were being sold on popular international market sites. Many of the species were not listed by CITES, but this was often because there was insufficient data available to make a decision about its conservation status.

One animal singled out for concern is the large fruit bat Rousettus leschenaultii which is considered a pest by farmers, so there is very little public support for its conservation. “It’s hunted and traded a lot because it’s a very large species and this makes it desired by collectors,” Dr Chaber said.

Another bat heavily traded was Hipposideros diadema. "This species is vulnerable as it is found in caves, so they are easy to hunt and they have a low reproduction rate. By the time we realise that the population has declined, it might be already too late to take action,” she said.

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