Foresters of the skies

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - ARNOLD ZABLE

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 fruit­tree 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.

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