Our laws failed these endangered flying-foxes at every turn. On Saturday, Cairns council will put another nail in the coffin



David Pinson, CC BY-NC-ND

Justin A. Welbergen, Western Sydney University; Noel D Preece, James Cook University, and Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

On Saturday, Cairns Regional Council will disperse up to 8,000 endangered spectacled flying-foxes from their nationally important camp in central Cairns.

The camp is one of the last major strongholds of the species, harbouring, on average, 12% of Australia’s remaining spectacled flying-foxes. But after recent catastrophic declines in spectacled flying-fox numbers, moving them from their home further threatens the species survival.




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


Yet, the federal environment minister approved the dispersal last month under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) – Australia’s key environment legislation for protecting threatened species, and currently under a ten-year review.

This planned dispersal – which the council says is in the interests of the species – is set to conclude a long series of controversial management actions at the site. The EPBC Act failed to protect the species at every turn. The camp may now be non-viable for the flying-foxes.

Spectacled flying-foxes are important pollinators and seed dispersers in Australia’s Wet Tropics.
Inigo Merriman

Decline of the rainforest specialist

Spectacled flying-foxes are critical for pollination and dispersing fruit in Australia’s Wet Tropics, and so underpin the natural values of this world heritage-listed region.

But habitat destruction and harassment largely caused the species’ population to drop from 250,000 in 2004 to 75,000 in 2017. Subsequent monitoring has, so far, shown no sign of recovery.

In late November 2018, another 23,000 bats – a third of the population – died from heat stress. It marks the second largest flying-fox die-off in recorded history.

Today, the camp is not only home to a big portion of the species, but also around 2,000 pups each year. Flying-foxes are extremely mobile in the region, so the camp provides a roosting habitat for more than what’s present at any one time.

Endangered spectacled flying-foxes are set to be dispersed from their camp in Cairns CBD, one of the last strongholds of the species.
Justin Welbergen

Why dispersals don’t work

The council is permitted to disperse the flying-foxes with deterrent measures, including pyrotechnics, intense lighting, acoustic devices and other non-lethal means.

The Conversation sought a response to this article from Cairns Regional Council. A spokesperson said:

Relocation measures will only occur between May and September – outside of the spectacled flying fox pup rearing season to avoid a disruption to the species’ breeding cycle.

The relocation activity will be undertaken by appropriately qualified and experienced individuals and non-lethal methods will be used.

The program is tailored to minimise any stress on the animals and causes no injury of any type.

However, ample evidence shows dispersals are extremely costly, ineffective and can exacerbate the very wildlife management issues they aim to resolve.

Dispersals risk stressing the already disturbed animals, and causing injuries and even abortions and other fatalities. They also risk shifting the issues to other parts of our human communities, as the bats tend to end up settling in an unanticipated location after having been shuffled around town like a game of musical chairs.

Even in the often-cited example of the “successful” relocation of vulnerable grey-headed flying-foxes from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens in 2003, experts couldn’t direct the bats to their designated new camp.

Instead, the flying-foxes formed a permanent camp at Yarra Bend, one kilometre short of the intended destination, where they’re now subjected to renewed calls for culling or dispersal.




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‘Fogging’ is one of several methods used to disperse flying-foxes from their camps.
Australasian Bat Society

Poor management

Cairns Regional Council argues their decision to attempt to move the bats to the Cairns Central Swamp is in the long-term interest of their survival. A council spokesperson says:

Heat stress events, urban development and increased construction in close proximity to the Cairns City Library roost will continue to stress and adversely affect the spectacled flying fox population.

Also, the health of roost trees at the library site, and therefore the viability of the site as a spectacled flying fox roost, is diminishing.

Council believes relocation will mitigate human/flying fox conflict, enable the trees at the library to recover, and will likely reduce the high rates of pup mortality that have been recorded at the library colony.

But these animal welfare concerns arose from the accumulated impacts of the council’s poor management actions, or actions the council supported.

In 2014, the council was found guilty, under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act, of driving away spectacled flying-foxes and illegally pruning the habitat trees.

Over the past seven years, most roosting trees of the Cairns CBD camp were either removed or heavily pruned, resulting in the destruction of more than two-thirds of the available roosting habitat.
Provided by authors

The Cairns camp was then subjected to a series of EPBC-approved roost tree removals in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Collectively these destroyed more than two-thirds of the available roosting habitat at the site.

This directly contradicts the specific EPBC Act referral guideline, which states actions to manage the flying-fox camps should not significantly impact the species.

And in 2015, Cairns Aquarium developers had to destroy trees home to hundreds of spectacled flying-foxes before they could start construction. That’s because under the EPBC Act, no building near or around the flying-foxes is permitted. In this case, the act’s well-intentioned protection measures caused far more harm than good.

Removals (X) of roost trees from the Cairns flying-fox camp between 2013 and 2020. The new white rectangular buildings visible in 2020 are high-rise hotel (centre) and Cairns aquarium (top) developments
Provided by authors

Warnings fall on deaf ears

In the meantime, the national conservation status of the spectacled flying-fox moved too slowly from “vulnerable” to “endangered” in the listing process.

In 2017 the government’s own Threatened Species Scientific Committee advised listing the species as endangered, which would provide them with more protection.

But when the spectacled flying-fox was finally declared endangered in February 2019, they already qualified as critically endangered, according to official guidelines.




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What’s more, the state government’s recovery plan for the spectacled flying-fox – in place since 2010 – has never been implemented.

Are there any solutions?

There are no solutions under the EPBC Act as it’s currently framed.

The tragic end to the story is that a dangerous precedent is being set for flying-fox management in Australia. Bat carers in Cairns are readying themselves for an influx of casualties from the dispersal.

Some bat carers have sadly reached the conclusion the dispersal is now the least-bad option for the bats after their stronghold suffered a death by a thousand cuts, leaving their home unviable.

The review of the EPBC Act must see strengthened legislation to prevent such tragic outcomes for our threatened species. Australia’s inadequate protections allow species to be pushed towards extinction at one of the highest rates in the world.


Maree Kerr contributed to this article. She is a co-convenor of the Australasian Bat Society’s Flying-Fox Expert Group; an invited expert on the Cairns Regional Council’s Flying-fox Advisory Committee; President of Bats and Trees Society of Cairns; and is studying the role of education in public perceptions of flying-foxes at Griffith University

Evan Quartermain contributed to this article. He is Head of Programs at Humane Society International and a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.The Conversation

Justin A. Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University; Noel D Preece, Adjunct Asssociate Professor, James Cook University, and Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.