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Bat Issues | Australian Wildlife magazine summer 2013

Welcome To Duaringa

Rumors of fires, reports of gun shots, deadly viruses and trees decimated by the dozen… Welcome to Duaringa. A 9-hour drive to the arid outback where gum trees punctuate the plains and starlit nights illuminate the dusty roads of this remote town. What is the commotion surrounding this enigma with a population of just 250 people? Perhaps the answer lies amidst the other population that resides there: 100,000 Little Red Flying-foxes.

100,000 Little Red Flying-foxes return to roost as the sun rises over the tiny outback town of Duaringa. A keystone species of Australia, flying foxes play an ecologically paramount role in the region as forest pollinators. Naturally nomadic, Little Reds follow the flowering eucalypt as it seasonally blossoms across Australia.

A melancholy hum of generators harmonise like a dark ensemble that drones throughout the dusty town, echoing off the streets and resonating through camping grounds in the park. The notes singing appending doom are emanating from the Exclusion Zone, a 4 block area encompassing the trees where a colossal colony of Little Red Flying-foxes are roosting. Cordoned off to the public with hefty construction barricades and no shortage of fluorescent pink tape, workers of the Central Highlands Regional Council [C.H.R.C.] will toil tirelessly through the night to ensure Duaringa is as inhospitable as possible for the newly unwelcomed residents.

One does not need long in this town to realise the disdain for these bats amongst its residents. From the first day of the influx, mid-2012, C.H.R.C. has received an uninterrupted torrent of complaints from upset townsfolk regarding the Little Reds sojourn: “Irreverent squabbling”, “[Defecation] covered cars and backyards” and “the pungent smell.” One resident, with great concern for my safety, yells at me from across the road: “Get indoors mate, it’s not safe to go outside in the day!”

However, any attempt to disturb Flying-foxes or their colonies is a punishable offense. Classed as a protected species, 2 of the 4 Flying-fox varieties found in Queensland are federally listed as threatened. Regardless, bulk of the ambient chatter overheard today involves the current ‘Dispersal’ [euphemised as a ‘Damage Mitigation Permit’], a Government-authorised assault that will utilise sound, light, smoke and limb-lopping to banish the Little Red Flying-foxes from Duaringa once and for all.

A resident of Duaringa watches as the Central Highlands Regional Council fells trees of the tiny town. Part of a government-sanctioned Flying-fox dispersal, C.H.R.C. will utilise ‘limb-lopping’ as a means to prevent Duaringa’s roosting Flying-fox population from returning to town after their night of nectar and pollen feasting.

“A keystone species of Australia, Flying-foxes are a nomadic, floating population who follow the blossoming eucalyptus flower across Australia. If left alone, they would move on by themselves, but the more they are intimidated, the more encouraged they are to stay here for protection,”

I’m told by Lyn Laskus, a Rockhampton Wildlife Rehabilitator of remarkably petite stature. With nectar and pollen as the favoured diet of Flying-foxes, they unwittingly rank among the main pollinators of Australian forests, proliferating eucalypts, melaleucas, figs and other native trees. If these winged-mammals are removed from the ecosystem, the devastating impact on the region’s biodiversity would be unjustifiably immense. Possessing one of the outback’s most pertinacious attitudes, Lyn has garnered much notoriety in Duaringa following her fortitude to educate the township on the ecological importance of bats. During her last trip, she erected Informational signs around the roost which were vandalised and destroyed within days. Forced to leave for her safety, Lyn claims she was eventually driven out of town by a discontented resident endeavoring to run her over with a ride-on lawnmower.

“I fear for the future of both the Little Reds and the environment they support if Duaringa is not willing to learn,” laments Lyn.

In the last decade, media sensationalism has characterised Flying-foxes as a disease ridden, winged menace; A widespread misconception stemming from the fact that Flying-foxes remain one of few creatures to naturally harbor the mysterious and deadly Hendra Virus. First discovered in 1994, Hendra stirred much panic within Australia’s lucrative horse racing industry as the malignant hand of the outbreak pointed its spindly fingers to the equine population and their vets. Each recorded outbreak of Hendra among horses brought along a 75% fatality rate. With grave concerns of health, noise and soiled washing, it is no surprise Duaringa wants them gone.

In a dubious position of power sits Peter Maguire, mayor of the Central Highlands Regional Council. Over the phone, he casts some insight on the importance of this dispersal.

“Are you talking about Hendra Virus?”
“Yes. If [Flying-foxes] can kill a horse, they can kill a human,”
after which Peter assures me,
“…but I’m not a bat expert.”

The devil lurking nonchalantly in the details would award Peter full marks for the accuracy of his self-assessment at this instance. Since its discovery, Hendra Virus has claimed the lives of 4 people, none of whom incurred it from a Flying-fox. In fact, of the 70+ horse deaths caused by the virus, no case revealed any solid evidence of contraction from Flying-foxes. Unaffected by its symptoms and incapable of transmission, how a small percentage of Flying-foxes have come to harbor the virus still baffles the scientific community. However, with the successful development and sale of an equine vaccine, Hendra Virus has invariably sunk into the past.

“Nonetheless, humans before animals,” continues Peter.
“It’s not Australia when you can’t sit outside and have a barbie without worrying about bat shit in your food and drink.”
“[The Little Reds] have got to go.”

No joy or bewilderment was to be heard either of the spectacular evening fly-out of 100,000 Flying-foxes, an amazing phenomenon only a few in the world have the privilege of witnessing. In an astonishing display of synchronicity, The Little Reds form dark swirling vortices radiating from the trees in which they roost. Within minutes, the sky has exploded into a spectacled canopy. The fiery sunset is even momentarily obscured as their profuse population appears to amalgamate into a single, monumental being. However, as the starving colossus dissipates into the darkness of the evening above, C.H.R.C. workers are yanking on pull-starts of floodlights in the Exclusion Zone below.

Despite the systematic razing of Duaringa’s vegetation with their sap-stained chainsaws, Central Highland Regional Council’s cuspate cutting chains could not chop the tension in the air tonight. A Police officer overseeing tonight’s operation promptly motions me to keep my distance from the Exclusion Zone barrier and issues a stern warning,

“NO photos of this operation. NO photos of council workers. NO photos of council vehicles and NO photos of me.”

Inquisitive residents peek their heads through curtains to watch as bulldozers uproot decades-old trees. The woody fragrance of resin mixes with the taste of high-octane fumes and impregnate the breeze. Litter of leaves left on the streets blow into the goggles and respirators of council workers as they dismember fallen trunks and load the limbs into dump trucks. Suddenly, the first Flying-fox is spotted returning from a night of nectar and pollen feasting. Like the first shot of a flaming arrow between enemies on a battlefield, this is the signal for the skirmish to begin:

In anxious anticipation, the police car patrolling tonight’s operation is joined by a firetruck and dozens of locals in their cars eager to join the barrage. Much to the confusion of abruptly awoken campers in the park, they form a battalion and begin traversing the grid of roads around the exclusion zone with lights flashing, horns honking and sirens wailing. As more Flying-foxes begin to arrive, C.H.R.C. workers introduce their line-up of heavyweights to the armada:

4wd utility trucks with rear tray and trailer mounted ‘scare-guns’. A combustion-based, projectile-less canon system, a ‘scare-gun’ relies on the ignition of propane from an attached gas cylinder to disorientate and deter the returning Flying-foxes with the noise of a concussive ‘BANG’.
4wd utility trucks with rear tray and trailer mounted ‘ULV fogging machines’. Using a large volume of air to disperse miniscule liquid droplets into the atmosphere, ‘foggers’ will fumigate the remaining foliage that bats attempt to return to with plumes of herbicide and pesticide.
4wd utility trucks with rear tray and trailer mounted ‘scare-guns’. A combustion-based, projectile-less canon system, a ‘scare-gun’ relies on the ignition of propane from an attached gas cylinder to disorientate and deter the returning Flying-foxes with the noise of a concussive ‘BANG’

Taking to the streets with militant uniformity, emblazoned across each machine are the initials of the Central Highlands Regional Council in bright yellow stencils. Weaving between swing-sets and see-saws, artificial smoke soon permeates the local park. Ricocheting shock waves of scare-guns rattle the sensitive ears of discombobulated bats as they fill up the remaining treetops. Spotlights cast garish rays through the haze while the red/blue flashing of police sirens reflect off windscreens and windows. Given that Flying-foxes typically produce one baby per year, the potential of stress to devastate a colony is exceptionally enormous. When tormented, build-up of the cortisol hormone in bats will frequently result in abortions by pregnant mothers. As the majority of Little Reds inadvertently return to the siege, it is an understatement to call Duaringa a war-zone at this point.

As part of a government “dispersal”, an armada of C.H.R.C (Central Highlands Regional Council) vehicles mounted with smoke canons frantically fumigate trees of Duaringa town as Flying-foxes attempt to return to their roost in the early hours of the morning. “With misinformation and irrational fear at its highest in years, the perception of these creatures is that they are disease ridden, winged menace.” says Lyn Laskus, a wildlife rehabilitator.

Amid the turbulence, however, there is some respite to be found: Within this coordinated hurricane, the eye of the storm is denoted by a perimeter of bright orange cones. Growing from this incongruous sanctuary is the ‘crèche’; The nursery tree of a Flying-fox colony. Pups who are too heavy to haul, yet still too young to fly are temporarily deposited here by mothers before embarking upon their nightly flights. The conditions of the dispersal dictate: “As long as there are juvenile Flying-foxes in the crèche [Of which there are 4 according to the supervising environmental officer.], the tree cannot be touched.” As such, C.H.R.C. and anyone else who wanders too close risk hefty fines and potential jail-time. Returning to the roost, Flying-fox mothers will call out to their young with a unique vocalisation. Recognising the signal, offspring will respond in the same manner. This allows parents and their dependant young to unite amid the often thousands of near-identical Flying-foxes inhabiting a single roost. Despite the booming cacophony, it is easy to hear the frantic cries between mothers and babies who now cannot find each other.

Casualties caught between the contest of nature and human interests; The limbs of dead trees litter the streets of Duaringa. As part of a government sanctioned “dispersal”, the Central Highlands Regional Council cuts down trees that flying-foxes may use to roost during the night when they have flown out to find food.

Upon the arrival of dawn’s light, the last scare-gun is fired and the final siren silenced. While the rising of the fiery sun begins to reveal the aftermath, it quickly becomes apparent that Duaringa’s crusade has been somewhat successful. The vast majority of the Little Red colony are now settling into a new bushland roost just over a kilometer from the town. However, with limbs of dead trees now littering the streets and pathways of Duaringa, residents are left to restore a misconstrued sense of balance to their community. Yet, as the suffocating smog of last nights battle gently drifts into the surrounding valleys and plains, hazy allegations of gunshots, fires and slaughter of innocent bats soon waft onto the radars of conservationists worldwide.

Eve Of The Hallowed

“Behind me you can see Blacks and the threatened Grey-Headed Flying-foxes.”

says Louise Saunders, president of Bat Rescue & Conservation Queensland. On a gloomy Halloween evening in Brisbane’s south-east suburbs, she is addressing a gruesome gang of children dressed as vampires, fairies, zombies and bats. Coordinated by her entirely volunteer-based organisation, this unique event provides Louise with an opportunity dispel the great amount of misinformation and hysteria currently surrounding bats. The hideous horde patiently waits for the climactic finale of her presentation in which Cleveland’s largest Flying-fox colony will take to the skies only meters above their heads.

A demonstrator takes stand outside the gates of the Queensland Parliament Buidling as part of a rally organised against the legalised slaughter of Flying-Foxes. On National Threatened Species Day 2012, the Queensland Government announced intentions to legalise the shooting of Flying-foxes.

“As a matter of fact, Flying-foxes are nothing like the spooky, bloodsucking, cave-dwelling characters many think they know through television and movies.”

Much unlike their insect-eating, Microbat cousins, a Flying-foxes’ vegan diet consists of pollen, nectar and fruit. They roost in trees rather than caves and other dark, dank places. They do not use echolocation to navigate, instead, their noctidiurnal vision grants them better eyesight than a human in the day, and a cat at night.

“But of course we all know they’re just puppies with wings!” Louise laughs, referring to their playful nature and incredibly canine-like face, “That’s why we call them Flying-foxes…”

Today’s occasion was inspired by the recent ecocidal death sentence announced by the Australian Government. On National Threatened Species Day (Held on 7th of September to commemorate the death of the last Tasmanian Tiger.) 2012, the Queensland State Government gazetted changes to the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to legalise the shooting of Flying-foxes. Once outlawed in 2008, the Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee previously declared shooting Flying-foxes an act of cruelty.

“…and it’s still just as cruel now as it was then,” Louise passionately explains to her freakish flock.
“In 2008, we found 92% of Flying-foxes would be shot through the wings and slowly left to die.[…] Half of the Flying-foxes shot will be females, meaning the babies of victims will be left to starve.”
“Most importantly, bullets don’t discriminate between Blacks, little Reds, Grey-Headed, or Spectacled Flying-foxes; threatened species will be shot too.”

The new law will once again grant orchardists the right to cull Flying-foxes as a means of crop protection. In 2001, a single farm in Queensland slaughtered one fifth of the world’s population of Spectacled Flying-foxes; 18,000 members of a threatened species over a 6 week period using no more than an electric grid. As the camp of Flying-foxes before us amass and go airborne, children point in astonishment with witches fingernails while parents take photos.

Louise Saunders, president of Queensland Bat Conservation & Rescue, speaks to the media about the legalised slaughter of Flying-foxes by the Queensland Government. In her hand, she holds an orphaned juvenile black flying-fox rescued that morning.

Pulling me to the side, Louise is abhorrent.

“We’re fighting politics, conservation is not about politics. When Koalas needed support (In reference to the 2012 Koala population crisis.), they got funding and education; We get bullets.”
The Unsung Savior

In one of Down Under’s darkest environmental epochs, ignorance and misinformation circling Flying-foxes is higher than ever before. An ‘Africa’ of the Pacific, megadiverse Terra Australis is home to thousands of the world’s most unique animals. Yet, Living in one of Australia’s most wildlife-abundant regions, inhabitants of a rural town would rather inundate their own environment with pesticides & herbicides than live harmoniously with arguably the most important animal in the country; Instead of cost-efficient, environmentally/wildlife friendly methods of crop protection, the Federal Government prefers to issue farmers with permits to cull 10,000 Flying-foxes per year.

Set before a backdrop of people whose destinies are interlaced with bats, the dichotomy of human prosperity and conservation of nature demonstrates, if nothing else, a hauntingly severe lack of education. As the taglines of Louise Saunders’ campaign resonate from the tropical rainforests of Queensland to the xeric deserts of Northern Territory, the Australian government remains intransigent. With the salvation of Australia’s rich flora and fauna hanging upon the survival of the countries most hated creature, these indispensable, sentient forest pollinators need our understanding now more than ever.

You can read about it in the Summer 2013 edition of the Australian Wildlife Magazine:


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BatsRule!: Bat Issues | Australian Wildlife magazine summer 2013
Bat Issues | Australian Wildlife magazine summer 2013
Australian Wildlife magazine summer 2013
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