the peril and beauty of flying fox life in the time of extinction

Introducing the film Following Flying Foxes by Natasha Fijn & Deborah Bird Rose

To view the three separate video segments that are incorporated within this page, please refer to the end of the Following Flying Foxes I, II and III sections below.

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The great conservation biologist E.O. Wilson writes that the growing cascade of anthropogenic (human-caused) extinctions is plummeting us into an ‘Age of Loneliness’.[i] We are losing our earth companions, and most of the loss is caused by us. The basic facts and figures are extremely alarming: around 70 species are thought to die out every single day; this is a rate of extinction approximately 100 to 1,000 times greater than normal background levels. Australia is deeply involved in all this loss: we have the highest rate of mammalian extinctions in the world today.
Mother and Baby in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Photo courtesy of Nick Edards, Bat Advocacy
One group of endangered creatures is flying foxes, also known as giant fruit bats or, more colloquially, ‘bats’. They are members of the Pteropus species, and there are four main species in Australia. I am investigating their imperilled lives, their role as keystone species in relation to other endangered species and ecosystems, and their vulnerability to processes of extinction.
Following Flying Foxes

Natasha Fijn and I worked together to produce a film that communicates some of the joy and beauty of flying fox life, as well as discussing many of the perils. Following Flying Foxes tells three short stories, each of which offers insight into flying foxes, the people who rescue, care for, and defend them, and some of the perils they face in life. Natasha describes her approach to film this way: ‘I have a background in wildlife filmmaking but my approach to filmmaking is more observational in style, employing principles and ethics of ethnographic filmmaking. Just as academia has tended to focus exclusively on humans, or animals, but not both, this is also the case with filmmaking. My aim is to draw techniques from both wildlife and ethnographic filmmaking genres to make observational films, which include both humans and other animals as active participants in the film.’

We thank Macquarie University and the Australia Research Council for funding that made this research and film possible.[ii]
Natasha Fijn, filming at the Tolga Bat Hospital, Atherton, Queensland
Who are the flying foxes and where did they come from?

Australian flying foxes are among the largest flying mammals in the world. They are nocturnal and arboreal, and unlike microbats they do not have sonar and do not echolocate. Also unlike microbats, they feed on nectar, pollen and occasional fruits and seeds. The Pteropid family lives in the old world tropics, and they are mainly an island species. Flying foxes seem to be relatively recent arrivals in the fossil record, and the record from Australia is particularly recent (perhaps only the last two million years). It seems certain that they arrived in Australia from Papua New Guinea.[iii] During the time that Aboriginal people have been in Australia, humans and flying foxes lived together amicably. Humans ate flying foxes from time to time, and also incorporated their travels and behaviour into the stories and songlines of creation. Flying foxes chased blossom and nectar, pollinating the great woodlands of south-east and north Australia.

The Anglo-European take-over of Australia brought an era of death. Aboriginal people were dispossessed and, in many instances, killed outright. Forests were cut down, and flying foxes were killed in the millions. Today, with their numbers greatly reduced, flying foxes are still shot legally in the state of New South Wales.

Four main species of flying foxes make up the Australian contingent: Black Flying Fox (Pteropus alecto), Grey-headed Flying Fox (P. poliocephalus), Little Red Flying Fox (P. scapulatus), and Spectacled Flying Fox (P. conspicillatus). By preference they travel widely in search of pollen, seeds and fruits, covering vast areas during an annual round as they follow flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs. Prior to massive population losses, some camps numbered in the millions.[iv] At this time, both grey-headed and spectacled flying foxes are listed as threatened under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Investigation is currently under way to gain a better understanding of their role in promoting the resilience of woodlands.[v]

Every night thousands upon thousands of flying foxes spread their wings and move into the night in search of blossoms, nectar and pollen, and, failing that, fruits and berries. Across the patchy and increasingly fragmented woodlands of south-east and north Australia, they carry the renewal of woodland and forest life.
What are the Perils?

A curious aspect of this ‘Age of Loneliness’ is that we humans and nonhumans are experiencing ever more crowding. As more and more bush is taken up for agricultural purposes, and rendered incapable of supporting the lives of wild animals, more and more animals are moving to cities. The urbanisation of wildlife makes it essential for us humans to learn to co-exist generously and safely with wild animals, and to the extent that humans are unwilling to do this, animals continue to suffer. Forced out of the habitats to which they are adapted, and forced into urban areas where they survive around the edges of human inhabitation, urban flying foxes risk a great number of perils including cars, electrical wires, angry people (even people with guns), and decisions to expel them. All of these factors contribute to the troubles flying foxes are facing, and one must always include the fact that in New South Wales it is actually legal to shoot flying foxes even though they are listed as an endangered species.

In the following films you will see people handling flying foxes. These people are all trained professionals. Flying foxes are wild animals: they bit and fight, and a very few may carry disease. If you see a flying fox in distress the best thing to do is to ring a wildlife rescue group in your area. A list of phone numbers is provided below.

Following Flying Foxes, Section 1: Can people really help flying foxes?

One fascinating story of peril and rescue concerns the spectacled flying foxes in the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland.
Jenny Maclean with April, a premature flying fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.
The Tolga Bat Hospital was founded by Jenny Maclean, a dedicated carer and advocate, in response to a disastrous local situation. The main species of flying fox in this region is the endangered spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus). These bats are pollinators and seed dispersers for the world heritage rainforest located in this region, as well as for other ecological communities. In this part of the Atherton Tablelands, they forage on the berries of Solanum mauritianum (a weed from South America) in October, November and December of each year. Their foraging brings them close to the ground and they are then prey to paralysis ticks. They have not developed resistance to the ticks, and so they become paralysed. Jenny and her team of dedicated volunteers walk the forest floor looking and listening for flying foxes in distress, rescuing them, and bringing them back to the Bat Hospital. Some can be saved, many cannot, and many babies are orphaned. The purpose of care is to sustain all those that have a chance of survival, and return them to their forest homes as soon as they are ready for release. At times up to two hundred orphaned babies are being fed every four hours by the team of volunteers.

Tolga Bat Hospital is both a care facility and an educational centre that is open to visitors. Jenny and her dedicated volunteers care for flying foxes of two categories. The first is those who can be rehabilitated and returned to the bush. The second is those whose injuries prevent them from being able to survive in the bush, but whose health means that they can still live a life of quality. These flying foxes are in care for the long term, and they need daily attention. Individuals of all four species live in the Tolga enclosure.

Jenny’s flying fox enclosure is the tallest in Australia, providing generously for the creatures’ desire to be high above the ground, and the flying foxes cluster at the top, except when they come down to human level for food and care. The enclosure is cleaned daily, and the flying foxes are fed and cared for every day. Young ones are weighed, measured, and visually inspected. Older ones, many of whom have become habituated to humans, greet visitors and, knowingly or knowingly, act as ambassadors for their companions and their species.

In this film section Jenny and the volunteers Ashleigh Johnson, Charlotte Grey and Ceinwen Edwards care for flying foxes, and tell a bit of the life stories of a few of the flying foxes in care, some of whom have been rescued from appalling treatment by humans. Most of the flying foxes in this film are the spectacled species, readily identifiable by the rings around their eyes. We did the filming at a relatively quiet time at the Tolga Bat Hospital. During the tick paralysis season life becomes extremely busy. In fact, the tick problems in 2011 were especially severe, probably as a result of the effects of cyclone Yasi. The Tolga hospital was unable to cope with the increased number of affected flying foxes, and in November 2011 one hundred babies were airlifted south from Cairns to Brisbane where they were met by people who would foster them. In keeping with sound wildlife practice, the youngsters will be sent back north so that they can be released in the area from which they came.[vi]

Download Can people really help flying foxes?

Following Flying Foxes, Section 2: What is it like to foster an orphan?

Flying foxes are not pets. The purpose of fostering a baby is to enable it to return to the bush to live with other flying foxes. The work has a paradoxical aspect. Infant flying foxes need social care: they need grooming, and they need to feel part of the family. If they do not receive maternal-like social care they cannot thrive. However, when they get to be teen-agers a new phase sets in. They no longer need the care of a nurturing adult, and they do need to learn to live like a flying fox. At this time, young flying foxes are brought into a crèche where they live primarily with others of their own kind. Within the enclosure are adults who are unable to live in the bush, but who know how to interact as flying foxes. Here the young flying foxes learn to get along with each other, practice flying, learn flying fox etiquette, and gain the communicative and other skills they will need when they are released. Later in the year they are taken to a release centre where fairly quickly they learn to live without human assistance.
Naomi and Peebo (Pteropus poliocephalus)
This film section features Naomi Roulston and the young grey-headed flying fox Peebo who she raised from the time he was a few days old. Peebo was completely bonded with Naomi, and part of the bonding was familiarity. Naomi always wore the same shirt when she handled Peebo, and she didn’t wash it because it was important that the shirt smell like ‘mum’. She left it with him in the crèche as a transitional comfort, the bat equivalent of a security blanket

The crèche is run by Mandi Griffith, a dedicated and extremely gifted carer. Many injured flying foxes are brought to Mandi, and she cares for them all, releasing many back into the bush. All the flying foxes that come into Mandi’s care are weighed and measured, and banded temporarily so that they can be identified until Mandi gets to know them as individuals. Later, before they are released, they are banded more permanently for future identification. (For more about Mandi and her work, see ‘Bat Wrap Episode 3’, link below).
Mandi Griffith and friend (Photo courtesy of Mandi)
In this film, Naomi mentions another baby flying fox she raised. Sabatticus was taken to crèche a few days before Peebo. Both were successfully released and have not since come back into care, indicating that most probably they are getting along fine in the bush.

There are numerous reasons why baby flying foxes are orphaned and end up in care. Peebo’s mother was electrocuted, and yet somehow the little baby holding on to her nipple survived. In the film Naomi talks about conflicts between humans and flying foxes in urban areas, and discusses the need for corridors of bush that would enable flying foxes to move through country without encountering so many hazards.

Download What is it like to foster an orphan?

Following Flying Foxes, Section 3: What happens when humans decide on zero-tolerance?

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney is home to a maternity camp of the endangered grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus). In the last few years some black flying foxes (P. alecto) have also arrived. Flying foxes love to camp together, although members of the different species generally keep to themselves. They spend much of their time in camp grooming themselves and each other. Maternity camps are those to which flying foxes return year after year to give birth and raise their young. Females give birth to only one baby each year. For a few weeks the baby hangs on to the mother’s nipple (located under her arm/wing) while she flies out at night for food. Later, though, they are left behind in crèches in the centre of camp. The mothers return at dawn, flying round and round until they locate their own baby and taking it to their daytime branch. Once the babies have grown into adolescents or young adults, they leave their mothers and move into groups of age-mates, amongst whom they learn flying and navigational skills.[vii]

In May 2010, Minister for Environment Protection Peter Garrett approved the dispersal of flying foxes from the Botanic Garden where they had been living permanently and where a number of exotic heritage trees had been destroyed by their coming and going. The project is meant to be closely monitored, and impact minimised, but it is also open-ended, and can continue for twenty years. The project has thus far been unable to proceed because the flying foxes have been in extremely poor condition due to starvation. Monitoring continues.

Earlier attempts to disperse flying foxes in the Royal Botanic Gardens were unsuccessful[viii], and the forced removal of flying foxes from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, while successful from the point of view of the Garden, has left the flying foxes exposed to temperature extremes that are sometimes lethal[ix]. Of course not all cities, and certainly not all humans who are in positions of public trust, take a zero-tolerance approach to flying foxes. There are some excellent texts on how to manage geographical proximity between humans and flying foxes, and some excellent examples of convivial co-existence.[x]

Flying fox expert Tim Pearson notes that while flying foxes can, perhaps, be harassed into leaving the Sydney Botanic Gardens, no one can predict or control where they will go. He describes the Botanic Gardens ‘dispersal’ project as a ‘watershed moment in the life of the species’. By this he means that if it proves to be legal and technically ethical to harass and harry an endangered species, driving individuals from their maternity camp with no serious means of ensuring that they do not become unwanted and subjected to more harassment at their next camp, the future of the species becomes even more imperilled. Pearson is committed to the long-term survival of flying foxes, but is not hopeful. He notes that as long as flying foxes keep coming into towns and cities, and conflict continues. ‘And of course the only reason they keep coming into the cities is we keep cutting down forests. If we can’t even save forests for koalas, then we won’t be able to save them for any other species.’
Tim Pearson monitoring flying foxes at the Gordon Colony, North Sydney
Sydney as part of the on-going effort to understand patterns of mobility. Responding to questions by a Botanic Garden visitor, Fred Kiernen, Tim explains the problems that are identified as the reason for dispersing flying foxes. Tim’s years of experience observing flying foxes have given him a wealth of knowledge and a terrific fund of stories.

The film includes the beautiful sight of flying foxes fanning out across Sydney’s iconic bridge and opera house. It is great visual confirmation of the attitude expressed eloquently by journalist James Woodford, that ‘watching bats silhouetted against the stars is one of the greatest, but little known, pleasures of life’.[xi]
Download What happens when humans decide on zero tolerance?

BAT HELPLINES
SYDNEY WILDLIFE: 02 09413 4300
SYDNEY WIRES: 02 8977 3333
BRISBANE: 0488 288 134
WIRES (ANYWHERE): 1300 094 737
MELBOURNE: VICTORIA WILDLIFE: 13 00 094 535
Other Resources

Websites

Brisbane: http://www.bats.org.au/
Tolga Bat Hospital: http://www.tolgabathospital.org/
Ku-ring-gai: http://www.sydneybats.org.au/
WIRES: http://www.wires.org.au/
Sydney Metropolitan Wildlife: http://www.sydneywildlife.org.au/
Melbourne: Victoria Wildlife: http://www.wildlifevictoria.org.au/

There are numerous other organisations with dedicated individuals, including Bat Advocacy NSW, the Humane Society, Voiceless, Animal Liberation, and many more.
Videos

Remnant Emergency Artlab’s Bat-Human Project:
http://www.remnantartlab.com/the-bat-human-event/
Remnant Emergency Artlab’s Sydney Botancal Gardens, Barangaroo X-tension Main Video http://vimeo.com/17506825
Bat Wraps Episode 1 Raising an orphaned baby flying fox

Bat Wraps Episode 2 Totally smitten – by a flying fox

Bat Wraps Episode 3 Giving injured flying foxes a second chance

Bat Wraps episode 4 The Bat Rap by Peter Noble

Useful books and articles not mentioned in the references

Eby, Peggy & Dan Lunney (eds) 2002. Managing the Grey-headed Flying-fox as a threatened species in NSW. Sydney: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.
Rose, Deborah 2011. ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’ in Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. Special issue: ‘Unloved Others: Death of the disregarded in the time of extinctions’, Deborah Rose & Thom Van Dooren, eds. http://epress.anu.edu.au/ahr/050/pdf/ch07.pdf
Endnotes
[i] WILSON, E. O. 2002. The Future of Life, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
[ii] Deborah Rose: Macquarie University Safety Net Grant, 2009: and ARC Discovery Project Grant, Deborah Rose and Thom van Dooren: ‘Encounters with Extinction: A multi-sited, multi-species approach to life at the edge of catastrophe in the Asia-Pacific region’ (DP110102886)
[iii] HALL, L. & RICHARDS, G. 2000. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press..
[iv] CONDER, P. 1994. With Wings on their Fingers: An Intimate View of the Flying-fox, Sydney, Angus & Robertson.
[v] ANON 2008. Flying-fox project to improve SEQ landscape resilience to climate change. In: CATCHMENTS, S. (ed.). Brisbane.
[vi] ANON. 2011. Orphan flying foxes hitch ride on plane from Tableland to southeast Queensland. The Cairns Post, 9 November, 2011.
[vii] HALL, L. & RICHARDS, G. 2000. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press.
[viii] RICHARDS, G. C. 2002. The development of strategies for management of the flying-fox colony at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. In: EBY, P. & LUNNEY, D. (eds.) Managing the Grey-headed Flying-fox as a threatened species in NSW. Sydney: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.
[ix] MILLER, C. 2003. Melbourne’s Great Bat Chase. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1, 229, PARRIS, K. M. & HAZELL, D. L. 2005. Biotic effects of climate change in urban environments: The case of the grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) in Melbourne, Australia. Biological Conservation, 124, 267-276. GARRATT, D. n.d. Black Saturday [Online]. Available: http://www.awrc.org.au/uploads/5/8/6/6/5866843/garrat_black-saturdayt.pdf.
[x] ANON 2007. Flying-fox camp management policy. Sydney: Department of Environment & Climate Change NSW, ANON 2010. Flying-Foxes Conservation Action Statement. Brisbane: City of Brisbane. ROBERTS, B. 2006. Management of Urban Flying-fox Camps: Issues of relevance to camps in the Lower Clarence Valley, NSW. McLean: Centre for Innovative Conservation Strategies, Griffith University.
[xi] WOODFORD, J. 2003. The Swingers. Sydney Morning Herald.