A BIG TASTE FOR THE TINY FRUIT BAT IN THE COOK ISLANDS

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By Lisa Williams

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (August 25, 1999 – Cook Islands News)---The humble bat may have inspired millions of dollars in blood-curdling Dracula flicks, but here in the Cook Islands the mere mention of moakirikiri is enough to set your appetite afire. Freelance journalist Lisa Williams looked into the plight of the fruit bat and how the effect of the raui could stem its over-hunting.

Local connoisseurs of bat may not number in their thousands, but their passion for the pungent-smelling delicacy is I suspect as fierce as my own yearning for dark chocolate. I admit, you don't wait in inland valleys up into the wee hours of the morning for a box of Roses assorted best, and of course Ferrero Rocher doesn't have to be skinned and cooked before eating.

But there are those out there who say the taste of Almond Roca is as dust compared to the addictive taste of a well-prepared bat.

I spoke to one such person.

"It keeps the smell if you freeze the bat with the skin on," says my bat-hunter. "Normally, we put them in the freezer because you might catch only one or two a night. You might have to go out every night for a week to get enough bats to cook."

Bats, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, are pretty small creatures. And the ones that we see on Rarotonga and Mangaia are the most widespread species in the South Pacific: Pteropus Tonganus, the South Pacific fruit bat.

MOAKIRIKIRI

The name across Polynesia for the fruit bat is pe'a or peka.

Natural Heritage and Environment Service records show us that when the Missionaries came in the 1820's the moakirikiri (gravel fowl) was only in Mangaia and was not seen on Rarotonga until half a century later.

No one seems to know why the Mangaia name moakirikiri stuck. Sure, fruit bats fly like moa, but the link to gravel or small pebbles?

One local resident says it might be because of the way bats hang in colonies of hundreds on hundreds of upside down creatures, looking like a vertical pebble path.

A Mangaian local says it might be because of the feeding patterns on kapok seeds, which look like kirikiri, little pebbles or grains.

Whatever the case may be, it's the feeding patterns of bats which get them into trouble.

Around sunset they fly separately off to dinner - a search for edible fruit, flowers and leaves.

Their main dining areas are inland valleys, with a few brave ones venturing closer to the back road plantations inland to feed on domestic plants.

SEASONS

During the winter, especially June and July, the shortage of inland food drives many down to the lower parts of the valleys and the inner lowland to feed on maniota and kapok. It is during this time, when they are also fat, that they are hunted.

There are many like bat-hunter who acknowledge that bats are not as plentiful as they used to be, even if we keep to only hunting bats in season, which is April to early August, when the main birthing season starts.

RAUI

Less than a hundred years ago, moakirikiri were so common here that they were a problem for local fruit growers and the Government paid a bounty for each killed.

No such bounty is needed now. In the age of bullets, moakirikiri numbers are under threat.

Some say only a raui will keep Cook Islanders beyond 2000 enjoying the taste of bat, but the Environment Service say that a raui can only be enforced if it's what the community wants and so far there hasn't been enough pressure from the community to get a raui enforced.

For now, they advise common-sense when hunting from nature's larder - only take what you need for the table, only shoot during season, from April to the beginning of August, and never, ever shoot bats in their own home - their nesting area.

THE DISH

But what makes bats so delectable? I've been served a plate steaming with a single whole bat on it, skinned and de-winged and floating in coconut renga. I still preferred a Cadbury crunchie.

In all fairness to the bat-hunters, if you dine out on fruit, keep out of the sun, and breath lots of fresh night air, it would lend your meat a certain appeal, like eating fish? Not so, says bat-hunter. Not even like chicken. . . perhaps like a nicely done lamb chop. I suspect that the taste is rather like the end result from those TV cooking programs.

It's the process added to the end result that enhances the taste, and the more complicated the process of getting bat from inland valley to your plate, the more tasty your moakirikiri dish will be.

Back at bat-hunters home, a week has passed and he has around five bats.

First order of preparation is skinning and gutting before wrapping the result in some rukau leaves, one bat per rukau bundle. Then into the umu it goes, which bat-hunter says gets a more tender result for bat meat than oven baking or boiling. Voila!

JUICY BITS

Bat-hunter says it's the strong flavor of bat which is addictive, but he personally thinks it's the fat part of the stomach which is the drawcard.

"The fat around the abs makes the meat juicy, even the meat around the bones. I can finish a couple in one seating 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."

Speaking of juicy bits, I know of those who say boiling bat is the only way to go because 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.

COURTSHIP

And contrary to what Hollywood tells us about bat-love at first bite, bat courtships, says Gerald McCormack, begin with mature male bats marking out their territories with scent from their shoulder glands.

It's that odor which brings them their 'harem' of females. After that attraction is established, females have their first pup at 24 months, and will have one every year for the next 12 years. With each pup born after a six-month pregnancy, there's not much of a break there for Mrs. Bat.

And then there's that exclusive breastfeeding thing in the first month, so that the pup is still feeding at the breast when the mother flies to feed at night. Five months later, another bat is ready to take on the world. And the bat-hunters.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands New Online.

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