Thousands of Bats Slaughtered Annually in Asia End Up on eBay and Etsy for Artsy Americans

Bats are being killed in Southeast Asia specifically to sell to American dead-bat enthusiasts, much of the supply on eBay and Etsy. 

Between mid-2000 and 2013, the United States imported 114,927 bats. A total of 113,200 of those bats were dead—that’s nearly 9,000 slaughtered bats per year. Most of these bats end up for sale on eBay, Etsy, Facebook, Instagram and in brick-and-mortar oddities stores.

The carnage has some conservationists and bat enthusiasts worried. Merlin Tuttle, a bat expert at Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, notes the extreme plight of bats in Southeast Asia. “I've seen huge losses, mostly due to various kinds of over-harvesting, especially at cave entrances, either for food or for sale as mummies,” Tuttle writes in an email to Newsweek. He says a cave that used to house hundreds of thousands of bats at a time is now completely empty.

Taxidermy_bat_mummy This bat was imported from Indonesia and sold on Facebook. Kristin Hugo

The vast majority of the bats come from Indonesia, the leading exporter of legally cleared wildlife shipments into the United States. But the legal requirements for export do not require an explanation of how, why or by whom the animals were killed. 

And the legality of those deaths is highly questionable. The phrase “ethically sourced” appears on many listings of dead bats for sale. Some sellers note that no animals were killed or poached. But Tuttle says such sound practice cannot possibly hold true for all sellers. “It is a virtual certainty that the bats you've seen advertised are not sustainably harvested,” he writes. “Any bat that died naturally would be quickly destroyed by ants or other arthropods or consumed by a scavenger.” 

Some fruit growers kill some of the kinds of bats being sold in order to protect their crops. But, says Tuttle, bats that are killed by durian fruit farmers are collected in nets and decompose until the net is full and drops. These bats would not be suitable for mummifying and selling on eBay.

Those who say they got their bats from a bat farm are “definitely lying” because there is no such thing as a bat farm, Tuttle says. Bats are very difficult to breed in captivity and only birth one to two baby bats (pups) per female annually.

Flying_Fox_Bat A flying fox, which is a large type of fruit bat, in Indonesia. Victor Ulijin / Flickr

Who is buying all these bat carcasses? Certain alternative communities, such as taxidermists, oddities collectors and certain subcultures, may be fueling demand. “A huge part of our following is the gothic community,” says Joseph D’Angeli, a bat conservationist known as “the New Jersey Batman.” He emphasizes that most goths, who tend to identify with dark moods, music and clothing—“wouldn’t be caught dead hanging these dead bats around.” But some, he explains, believe that owning mummified bats is cool and edgy, like Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off of one.

Allison White, a research scientist with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit focused on wildlife and emerging diseases, looked at a backlog of the organization’s data collected from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Management Information System (FWS LEMIS.) She searched out the name of every species of bat and kept a tally for Newsweek. Here is the data she found on imports to the U.S. from mid-2000 to 2013:

There were 2803 total shipments involving bats across all categories.

  • Live bats: 59 shipments; 1,727 total live bats

  • Dead bats-whole body: 390 shipments, totaling 44,398 dead bats.

  • Bat skeletons (substantially whole): 119 shipments; 6,641 bat skeletons

  • Specimens (scientific or museum): 2,096 shipments; 58,456 specimens (There were also 6KG of bat specimens in those shipments)

  • Skulls: 70 shipments; 1,978 skulls

Of the 2,734 total shipments in those categories, 96 of them were refused entry to the U.S. (2,638 were cleared). “Refused" includes shipments that were abandoned (n =6), re-exported (n = 26), or seized (n = 64).  

These numbers may be conservative because many imports are simply never seen. Legally importing bats requires an import/export license with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which costs $100 per year. The exporter has to include a CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) export paper and documentation that the animals were preserved in a way that would kill off any diseases.  

But importing off the radar may not be that difficult, leaving many dead bat arrivals uncounted. “I think it’s under-reported because all they know is what they find,” says William Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. “Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have the staffing levels to monitor every bag, every suitcase, every box, every container that comes to every port.”

Bats are vitally important to Indonesian ecosystems. “Durian sell for billions of dollars annually in [Southeast] Asia and are extremely difficult to produce without bats to pollinate them, even in orchards,” says Tuttle.

“Also, there is a strong animal rights community who would be quite upset about these cute and highly intelligent and beneficial animals being slaughtered for souvenir mummies,” he says.

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