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Disrupting bats will shift problems elsewhere

John Parsons at the Tooan Tooan Creek bat colony in Pialba.Alistair Brightman

IT'S John Parsons' secret. One of the Bay's small lakes few others visit. Most people don't know it's there, or even what happens by its shores.

It's Mr Parsons' happy place, the lake. Sitting on a camp chair with his mate Superdog by his feet, he often gazes out across the water to the trees beyond, watching the bats. Thousands of them.

Sometimes he'll watch all day, totally enthralled. Because nature, he suggests, is its own brand of theatre. And this little corner of the world, near Hervey Bay's Botanic Gardens, is one of its grandest stages.

"I normally bring a telescope, a chair, a table and something to eat, and I'll just sit here when they're in and I'll just watch what's going on," he says.

"That's when you might get the hawks coming in and they'll grab them and then they'll fly off.

"When that happens there's pandemonium, it's fantastic... you sit here quietly for long enough and you'll see all the stuff that flies around here. It's amazing - I love it.
"I look around and I think how did we get all these trees? I think there's another bloke up there in the sky, other than God, and I think he had to put all this together."

"Why not God?" I ask.

"He's too busy."

John Parsons, 73, is an environmentalist with a London accent. He wears boots without laces and a red shirt showing prints of bats hanging in trees, below their silhouettes is the slogan: Hanging out in Hervey Bay.

A big set of binoculars dangles from his neck like a stethoscope would from a doctor's. And an $800 Fujifilm camera he uses to capture moments that make his heartbeat quicken rests on a tripod nearby.

Mr Parsons is part of a group of volunteers and wildlife staff who monitor bat populations in Queensland. Together they collect data that is studied by researchers so bat behaviour can be better understood.

He says the program has been going for about 10 years. Department of Environment and Heritage Protection director of wildlife Rebecca Williams says 20 flying-fox roosts in the Fraser Coast are being monitored as part of the study.

"Recent survey data estimates the total average population of these roosts to be around 578,000 black, grey-headed and little red flying-foxes," Ms Williams says.

Mr Parsons adds that in peak times populations in the region can total well into the millions.

Those are the afternoons when the sky seems to blacken earlier than it otherwise would. Those are the afternoons Mr Parsons loves. When he can be seen looking into the sky near Tooan Tooan Ck, counting and watching in awe.

"It's like David Attenborough says, 'If you haven't seen it, it's one of Mother Nature's wonders'. It's just like a big black cloud. I love it, absolutely love it. The sky goes black," he says

"It's incredible because if you look at air traffic control, at the airports, they can't manage 20

planes, and a million of these come in with no air traffic control and they don't even hit each other - it can go on for 30 or 45 minutes sometimes."

Ms Williams says the research reveals flying foxes as being roamers and wanderers. She says they are unpredictable and travel wherever the wind carriers them and food grows.

"Flying fox survey data, which vary considerably from survey to survey for each roost, confirm that these animals are extremely mobile and nomadic," she says.

"It is their search for food that is the main reason for this behaviour and they can depart roost sites frequently, sometimes returning within a short time, sometimes years later and sometimes not at all."

The relationship between humans and flying foxes fractured this week when the Queensland Government announced plans to hand councils control to manage problem flying fox roosts in urban areas.

Fraser Coast Mayor Gerard O'Connell says council staff are still talking with the DEHP to work out exactly what the changes mean and what they will allow local governments to do.

He issued a conservative response to the Chronicle earlier this week when questioned about the possibility of removing bats from popular roosting places such as Tooan Tooan Ck.

"We will... investigate issues on a case by case basis as they arise, but the last thing we want to do is create more problems by splintering colonies and driving flying foxes into people's backyards," he said.

Mr Parsons fears this latest change could negatively affect bat populations in the Fraser Coast and across Queensland.

He says the use of noise or the removal of food from trees are the two most common approaches used to displace bat populations, and he fears they are ineffective and harmful.

"If they start chasing them away the flying foxes will get stressed," he says.

"If they're being chased or if there's a lack of food it's like us with the flu. When we get rundown we get a cold or the flu. Well, it's exactly the same with a flying fox.

"It could also cause them to stray into places where they wouldn't normally go, such as people's backyards, because they're looking for food - they will naturally do that."

Jon Luly is an earth and environmental science researcher and lecturer at James Cook University and an expert in bat behaviour.

He agrees any moves to disrupt populations will cause flying foxes to become stressed and he believes that would shift problems elsewhere, probably into backyards or other urban areas.

"It obviously adds to the stress levels in the animals and there is some suspicions this can actually make them more susceptible to expressing any diseases that they might be carrying," Mr Luly explains.

"And I should stress that's really unusual. They're not, despite what people might say, great sources of disease and contagion. That's rubbish.

"Illness or disease in bats is really rare, particularly of the sort that's likely to affect people and so, in a sense, the extra stress is likely to cause the problem to become a bit worse not improve it."

John's other fear is that the desire of humans to manage the populations of flying foxes will become all consuming, forcing them to turn to more extreme methods in a bid for control, forcing them to travel a slippery slope.

He sees education as the answer, as the key to stopping the fear. Somewhere along the way, he says, bats began to be associated with dark and sinister forces, and he claims that association is simply untrue.

"They're a fascination; they're a total fascination," he tells me. "Where do they come from and where do they go to? I keep asking myself that question. "I wish somebody would give me a set of wings and I'd go with them and find out. It would solve a lot of problems."

Environmentalist John Parsons loves keeping an eye on the colonies in Hervey Bay
Alistair Brightman

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