Foresters of the skies
The grey-headed flying fox faces a perilous nightly journey
By Arnold Zable
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They can be seen at dusk, above the river at Yarra Bend Park in Melbourne’s north-east, just kilometres from the inner city, taking off from their roosts and flying, silently, in an endless stream – a colony of 30,000 bats, heading out for their nightly feeding.
For up to an hour the procession continues. It is a majestic sight, mesmerising to watch. One by one the bats peel off, solitary foragers making for gardens and parks, flying up to 35 kilometres each way, to and from their roosts in one night.
They can be heard late at night, in the trees of suburban front gardens and backyards, occasionally squabbling with possums or other bats making claims on their patch. And by sunrise they are back at the “camp”, claws latched onto eucalypt branches, asleep upside down, or chattering like excited travellers sharing tales of their nightly adventures.
It’s a dangerous flight, with many hazards: powerlines, tramlines, barbed-wire fences. Driving rain and hail. City buildings that produce wind canyons where bats are caught and dashed against the walls of the upper storeys. Powerful owls preying on the young. Backyard fruit trees covered in netting.
Lawrence Pope, 56, a long-time animal advocate, devotes himself to bat conservation. He can be found at the bat-release enclosure near the camp tending to wounded animals. “The grey-headed flying fox is misunderstood and misrepresented,” he says. “They’re a vital part of our fragile ecosystems, feeding on pollen, fruit and nectar – great foresters, dispersers of fruit-tree seeds, and pollinators of over 100 species of native trees.”
Pope points out that these bats have been in Australia for at least two million years. “Every time we see them fly out we are witnessing something that Australia’s megafauna witnessed. Before European settlement, there were colonies of over a million, five kilometres long, half a kilometre in width. In the 1930s, colonies of 400,000 were observed on the east coast. Now they’re in danger of extinction.”
Pope likens the grey-headed flying fox to an effective barometer of climate change and shifting ecological conditions. They are a subtropical animal, and only began arriving down south in small numbers in the 1950s, in response to land clearing in New South Wales and the habitat getting warmer. “If there is a local flowering event, it will travel hundreds of kilometres to take advantage,” he says.
In the late 1990s a controversy erupted over a colony roosting in an area of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens called Fern Gully. There were claims that the bats were damaging important trees. Critics labelled them “flying rats”, “vermin” and “pests”, and called for their culling. Advocates were denounced as “eco-terrorists”. Shooters with silencers were contracted to take them out. “The plan was to keep killing them,” Pope says. “We were willing to put our bodies on the line to save them.”
One night, at 1 am, while concealed in thickets adjacent to Fern Gully, Pope saw a shooter taking aim with a rifle. He called his crew. By the time the activists charged in at 2.30 am, screaming and shouting, several animals had been killed – pups left behind in the trees while the adults were out feeding. The hired gunmen took off. The activists then drove to the home of the gardens’ director and lined up outside with placards in hand.
The protest campaign had the backing of scientists concerned that the grey-headed flying fox was an endangered species. A halt was put to the culling and a plan drawn up to relocate the colony. After months of coaxing – which involved haranguing the bats with loudspeakers mounted on roving buggies, and several way-stops on the river and in city gardens – the colony finally settled in its present site at Yarra Bend Park.
The bats’ camp may now be stable, but the animals are still in peril, especially the mothers and their pups. Pope explains that for the first four weeks, they are strapped across the mothers’ chests, with their mouths clamped on the nipples. About one in 2000 births are twins. The two of them are taken on board. Pups can be lost mid-flight.
When they become too heavy to take out, they are left overnight in a creche tree. When the mums return, they pick them up and return with them to their roost tree. They clean and breastfeed them, and put them to sleep. The young begin to fly from branch to branch, then venture further out to flowering trees nearby. Sometimes the older males shepherd them out, but lose interest when the mating season arrives.
“The biggest hazard,” says Pope, “is unsafe fruit-tree netting.” Trapped mothers, frantic to return to their young, can chew through their wings to get free. Many are maimed or die in the nets, leaving starving pups waiting in the camp.
Rescuers do what they can, among them Wildlife Victoria and Pope’s group, Friends of Bats and Bushcare. Five hundred injured bats were recovered this past season, and the numbers are rising each year. About one third die or are euthanased. About a third are released within a week or so, and another third go into long-term rehab and with luck are returned to the wild.
The injured and orphaned pups are taken into individual care, bottle-fed and nursed. When ready, they are taken to the release enclosure at Yarra Bend Park, where they build up strength before being pushed out. This season, 55 babies have been released, and 150 adults returned to the wild. Pope and his wife personally nursed two pups, dubbed Annie and Oakley.
In recent years, many bats have died during heatwaves. In 2009, more than 5000 were lost in one day. Pope and his group deploy sprayers to cool them on 40-plus degree days.
“I love them,” says Pope. “Over the ages they’ve been a persecuted animal, subject to mass killings. They evoke all kinds of emotions. They are a living continuity of Australia’s ancient history, and our response is to make them want to go away? To see them as a nuisance? Yes, I’m angry. This is a poverty of thought, of imagination. We have lost over 95% of the population since 1900. It’s a beautiful, intelligent creature with a key role to play in Australia’s botanical flourishing.”
Every May, the bats begin their annual migration north to the NSW coast, and as far as Bundaberg, Queensland. Many don’t make it. There’s not enough to eat, not enough continuous forest. They have been displaced by tree clearing and extreme weather. They stay in camps on the way for a few days, even months, depending on the food supply.
In recent years, increasing numbers have been heading west via the Otway Ranges to Adelaide, where they camp in parkland just outside the Adelaide Zoo. “The monkeys and bats go crazy chattering,” says Pope. “Wherever they go, it’s good news for Australia’s ecosystems.”
Except for a few thousand who remain in the camp over winter, by late May the bats at Yarra Bend are gone. The leaves on the hardwood eucalypts they have roosted in for the past six months are still there, left as they were found, awaiting their return in spring, with the warmer weather.
Arnold Zable is an educator and a human rights advocate. He has written several books, including Cafe Scheherazade, Jewels and Ashes, The Fig Tree, Scraps of Heaven and Sea of Many Returns.