Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, UNSW Australia

The conflict between urbanites and wildlife recently developed a new battleground: the small coastal New South Wales town of Batemans Bay, where the exceptional flowering of spotted gums has attracted a huge influx of grey-headed flying-foxes from across Australia’s southeast.

In response to intense and highly publicised community concern, federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has announced he will seek an immediate National Interest Exemption to facilitate dispersal of these bats – a move that risks undermining legal protections afforded to this and other threatened species.

Similar conflicts are occurring elsewhere in NSW, such as the Hunter region, where some unscrupulous members of the public lit a fire in a flying-fox roost at Cessnock.

With the ongoing expansion of the human urban footprint, animals are increasingly confronted with urban environments. Human encroachment into natural habitats generally negatively affects biodiversity. However, urban landscapes can present wildlife with an irresistible lure of reliable food supplies and other resources. While urban wildlife can provide a range of benefits to health and wellbeing, it can also be cause for frustration and conflict.

Urban human-wildlife conflict is a growing area of management concern and scientific research. But the research suggests that the current strategies for addressing NSW’s conflicts between humans and flying-foxes might not have the intended results.

Flying-foxes increasingly find themselves in urban areas.
Justin Welbergen

Ruling the urban roost

Australian flying-foxes are becoming more urbanised, and the noise, smell and droppings from their roosts can have huge impacts on local residents.

A fundamental problem underlying current approaches to urban roosts is a lack of understanding of the extraordinary mobility of flying-foxes. They are some of the most mobile animals in Australia, with movements that range from foraging trips of up to 120 km in a single night to long-distance nomadism covering thousands of kilometres in a single year.

Nomadic movements of an adult female grey-headed flying-fox, tracked over a period of four years and currently at Batemans Bay.
John Martin & Justin Welbergen, unpublished

While roosts can remain active for decades, they are more like backpacker hostels than stable households, housing a constantly changing clientele that comes to visit local attractions. Roosts are connected into large networks through which flying-foxes move in response to changes in local food resources.

This explains the sudden influx in places such as Batemans Bay where preferred food suddenly becomes abundant. But it also highlights the importance of a national approach to flying-fox management and conservation.

Intense local flowerings of Eucalypts, such as spotted gums, produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen, which attract large numbers of flying-foxes and other species for several weeks. When a relatively small local flying-fox population that is tolerated by its human neighbours suddenly increases tenfold, it can place severe pressure on the local community.

Despite their transient nature, these influxes are often wrongly interpreted as population explosions, leading to calls for culling. In comparison, more humane tactics – such as using loud noise or vegetation removal to disperse the flying-foxes – can seem like a more balanced response. But does dispersal actually work?

Council workers in Charters Towers, Queensland, using ‘foggers’ to disperse flying-foxes from a local roost.
Australasian Bats Society

Shifting the problem elsewhere

There is now ample evidence to show that dispersals are extremely costly and can exacerbate the very human-wildlife conflict that they aim to resolve.

Most dispersals result in the flying-foxes returning the original roost as soon as the dispersal program ends, because naïve new individuals continue to arrive from elsewhere. Overcoming this can take months or years of repeated daily dispersal.

Other dispersals result in flying-foxes establishing new roosts a few hundred metres away, typically within the same urban environment in locations that we cannot control. This risks shifting the problem to previously unaffected members of a community and to other communities nearby.

Former flying-fox roost at Boonah, Queensland, that contained thousands of flying-foxes before it was destroyed in June 2014.
Justin Welbergen

While flying-foxes are often portrayed as noisy pests, they serve our economic interest by providing irreplaceable pollination and seed-dispersal services for free. What’s more, those same bats that annoy people during the day work tirelessly at night to maintain the health of our fragmented forests and natural ecosystems.

So it is in our national interest to manage conflict at urban roosts, by using approaches that balance community concerns with environmental considerations.

Flying-foxes perform irreplaceable ecological roles in our natural environment.
Steve Parish

To be considered “successful”, a dispersal should permanently reduce conflict to a level that is acceptable to the community without causing significant harm to the animals. However, dispersals are currently implemented at the local council level with little or no monitoring of the impacts in or outside the immediately affected area. This makes it hard to assess whether they have been successful.

For example, it is not uncommon for flowering to cease and flying-fox numbers to decline naturally during the period of active dispersal. This gives the community a false sense that a permanent solution has been achieved, when in fact the issues will recur the next time the trees blossom. There is thus an urgent need for urban roosts to be managed with properly defined and applied criteria for success.

Evidence-based management

Unfortunately, lack of research effort directed at “ugly” and “less popular” Australian animals means that very few evidence-based management tools are available to deal with contentious roosts.

Research targeting a few key areas would greatly help efforts to improve urban roost management. For instance, we do not know how flying-foxes choose their roost sites, which leaves us unable to design “carrot solutions” by creating more attractive roost sites elsewhere.

Intensive tree-flowering events are relatively infrequent and hard to predict. This means that it is difficult to prepare communities for a sudden influx of flying-foxes.

Furthermore, the acceptability of various flying-fox management options differs between sections of the community, so it is difficult to find optimal solutions. Social scientists are currently trying to help identify priority areas that promote long-term viability of flying-foxes while also easing conflict with humans.

The extreme mobility of flying-foxes means that a uniform federal approach for management is needed.
Justin Welbergen/WildPhotos.org

Local, state and federal governments continue to allocate considerable funds for dispersal responses, even though such actions are high-risk activities for local communities and are unlikely to provide long-term solutions. We argue strongly that targeted research is needed to better inform land managers and affected communities of flying-fox ecology and provide them with low-cost, low-risk, evidence-based tools for dealing with urban roosts.

Flying-foxes don’t care about legislative borders, and state-based responsibility for wildlife management leads to discontinuity in approaches between jurisdictions. While flying-foxes are being monitored at the national scale, this initiative needs to be combined with a uniform federal approach for managing flying-foxes in our human landscapes. Otherwise, conflicts such as those faced by the residents of Batemans Bay will continue unabated.

The Conversation

Justin Welbergen, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Climate change, tourism and the Great Barrier Reef: what we know


Allison Anderson, CQUniversity Australia

The removal of an entire section on the Great Barrier Reef from an international report on World Heritage and climate change has been justified by the Australian government because of the impact on tourism.

The Guardian reported that all mention of Australia has been removed from the report released on Friday. An Environment Department spokesperson was quoted as saying that “recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of World Heritage properties impacted on tourism”.

Australia is the only populated continent that was not mentioned in the report, which was produced by UNESCO, UNEP, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. It comes in the wake of one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most significant coral bleaching events – one widely attributed to climate change.

What’s to hide?

In its purest sense, it could be argued that it is important for the world to know about the impacts climate change is having on some of its most famous natural wonders. This has the potential to precipitate national and global policy change that might ultimately help the reef.

It could also be argued that much of the damage to perceptions of people around the world has already been done. The final episode of David Attenborough’s documentary on the Great Barrier Reef – which discusses the widespread bleaching in detail – arguably has far more potential to influence would-be tourists contemplating a visit to the reef.

News coverage of the events has reached audiences as far afield as the United States and Britain. And a recent picture essay on The Conversation provides evidence of the bleaching, observing the phenomenon as “a huge blow to all Australians who cherish this natural wonder and to the tourists who flock here to see the reef”.

The impact on tourism

Given that the issues on the reef are well known and widely covered, would the UNESCO report really have had an impact?

The Cairns tourism industry is a vital export earner, not only for the region but for the nation. The region has more than 2.4 million visitors per year, contributing A$3.1 billion to the economy, with the Great Barrier Reef as its anchor attraction.

Adding complexity to the issue, there is debate locally as to how widespread the coral bleaching reported by scientists really is.

The tourism industry in Cairns has been quick to counter scientists’ claims with its own. Tour operator Quicksilver has responded with Reef Health Updates featuring a marine biologist who claims that as the water cools through winter, many of the coral are likely to regain their colour.

Tourists have also been interviewed for the campaign, emerging from the water amazed and astounded at the diversity of colour and marine life they have seen.

Regional tourism organisation Tourism Tropical North Queensland has also begun a campaign to showcase undamaged parts of the reef.

Tourism is a perception-based activity. Expectations of pristine waters and diverse marine life on a World Heritage-listed reef are what drives the Cairns and North Queensland tourism industry in Australia.

We know from past research that perceptions of damage to the natural environment from events such as cyclones do influence travel decisions, but we do not yet know how this translates to coral bleaching events.

Researchers in the region are working to collect data from tourists about how their pre-existing perceptions of coral cover and colour match their actual experiences.

This will provide evidence of the impacts of the bleaching event on the tourist experience and also shed light on what has shaped tourists’ perceptions prior to visiting. Currently, we only have anecdotal evidence from operators and the tourist interviews in the Quicksilver video on what these impacts really are.

What impact could this have on the reef?

From another perspective, tourism is particularly valuable to the reef because it is a relatively clean industry that relies on the preservation, rather than depletion, of the resource for its own survival.

The Great Barrier Reef is a resource of value to both tourism and other industries. In the past, the reef has narrowly escaped gas mining, oil spill disasters and overfishing, not to mention the ongoing impacts of land-based industries along the coast that drains to it.

It is important to remember that the original World Heritage listing was “born out of a 12-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in the world from being destroyed by uncontrolled mining”. This raises questions about whether the comparative economic importance of mining and other industries could increase if tourism declines.

The message about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef is already in the public domain. Research is still being done on the true impact of the bleaching event and associated perceptions on the tourism industry, and the results are not yet conclusive.

Rather than bury information that many people globally already have access to, perhaps the Australian government could think more creatively about how it is addressing the issues and promoting this as a positive campaign for “one of the best managed marine areas in the world”.

The Conversation

Allison Anderson, Lecturer in tourism planning and development, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.