It’s not so long ago that the sound of sporadic gunshots on the backroad lowlands in the early hours of the morning was commonplace.
For backroad residents, the sometimes not-so-distant shots were a sure sign that the fruit-bat hunting season was in progress.
They were fired by keen bat-hunters eager to secure their share of the seasonal bounty of Pacific fruit bats, generally known for some obscure reason by their Mangaian name of moakirikiri (“gravel fowl”).
Fast-forward 20 years or so, and bat-hunting is still legal on both Rarotonga and Mangaia, despite the fact that the elusive and small winged animals are listed on the Cook Islands Biodiversity database as “seriously endangered”.
Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust director Gerald McCormack says bat surveys on Rarotonga in 1997 and 2002 both gave similar population estimates of about 1700.
“Unfortunately the surveys were very difficult because of the remoteness and changing locations of the roosts. The true numbers could have been less than 1000 or more than 2000.
McCormack says if the correct number had been 1000, the “precautionary principle” estimate, then the sustainable harvest estimate in 2002 would have been 200 bats per year.
“Yet it was thought the harvest was around 400 bats which meant it was totally unsustainable. With no further population surveys nor any effort to find out how many are harvested each year we have no idea what is happening.
“Hunting bats is legal, as is the hunting of native birds, such as the Pacific pigeon. But I believe that generally, social pressure and the fact that there is more cash around to purchase food has caused a welcome decrease in the amount of hunting.
“After the Cook Islands economic crisis in the mid-90s shooting increased and then as economic times improved there has been less hunting.
“It mainly continues with a few dedicated shooters who really like to eat bats, which are definitely an acquired taste.
“The shooting is usually up in the valleys around kapok and cecropia trees rather than in built-up areas, although as more people build in the inland there will obviously be more of a conflict.”
“As for the country’s shooting regulations, none of Rarotonga’s birds nor the fruit-bat are protected and nobody seems to have pursued this in the last 40 years. Now and then there is some talk – and that's about it.”
Cook Islands Police media spokesman Trevor Pitt says while seasonal bat hunting still occurs, police readily acknowledge some serious safety issues are involved. He adds police have to rely on registered and licensed gun owners acting responsibly.
“Safety is paramount, so it may be possible to allow shooting, but bearing in mind the timing and location. The importation of firearms is not permitted, ammunition is strictly regulated and any complaints (about shooting) will certainly be followed up.”
Some Cook Islanders consider them a delicacy: people like my late neighbour in Betela back in the early 2000s, who occasionally offered me samples off his lunch plate.
However, the sight of what looked like steamed rodents lying in a soupy and foul-smelling bed of rukau leaves was an instant turn-off and I could never bring myself to take him up on his offer.
Bat connoisseurs, however, love the smell of Pteropus Tonganus, the scientific name for the South Pacific fruit bat, and like my former neighbour, freeze them complete with the skin – a step they say helps to retain the best flavour before cooking.
Shooting bats at night isn’t the easiest of tasks, especially in the valley areas where they tend to be most numerous, and hunters have to spend as much as a week on the job to gather enough to make even one meal.
On Rarotonga the hunting season is limited to five months, from April to early August.
Hunters mostly target caves inland and up in the hills where most bats literally “hang out” during the day, but at night they can sometimes be spotted down on the flats where the fruit and kapok trees they prefer are plentiful. Young fruit scattered on the ground are a sure sign they have been about.
According to natural heritage records, when the first missionaries arrived in Rarotonga in the 1820’s the moakirikiri was found only in Mangaia. It didn’t show up in Rarotonga until 50 years later.
A story on fruit bats in Cook Islands News back in 1999 quoted a hunter as saying it was the strong flavour of bat that was addictive. However, he personally considered the fat part of the stomach to be the drawcard.
“The fat around the abs makes the meat juicy, even the meat around the bones. I can finish a couple in one sitting, but for lots of people it’s not enough. It’s the smell that makes you want to eat more, and it probably explains why some people just like the juice.”
The story offered tips on cooking bats, claiming boiling them was the only way to go.
“You end up with an added bonus: a pot of batty water which you can freeze to use as soup. Cooked up with rice, the soup gives aficionados enough strength to get to the next bat hunting season.”
MOAKIRIKIRI (BAT) RECIPE
Palau fruit bat broth. 19083039
Growing up in the mountains with bat as part of her childhood died, Matariki Wilson offers a different perspective.
This recipe is one I learned from my feeding father Louis Caffery – a well-known grower and man of the land in Titikaveka.
I grew up in the mountains of Tikioki and every so often Papa Louis would get a hankering for bat, or moakirikiri.
Our job was to sit at his feet and when he shot a bat, we would run and retrieve it.
His cooking technique was simple but effective – or at least he enjoyed it!
Bat meat is tough and needs to be slow cooked to tenderise the meat.
As the meat is very pungent, a basic broth or stock is all that’s needed to cook the bat.
For a decent meal, four to six bats would be needed.
Once cleaned and cut into portions, place bat in a pot and cover with enough water.
Add in chopped onions and season.
Add in chopped green paw-paw to tenderise the meat.
Bring pot to the boil and allow the stew to simmer until meat is tender.
The bat broth can be served with a side dish of breadfruit or taro