The recent announcements by Premier Newman and Environment Minister Andrew Powell, regarding changes to policy and legislation concerning urban flying-fox colonies, are disturbing and unnecessary. The changes will give local councils the right to take non-lethal dispersal measures against flying-fox roosts in urban areas, whereas in the past they were required to apply for a damage mitigation permit.
The permit system helped to ensure that colonies were only disturbed/dispersed when there was an overwhelming need to do so and where there were no viable alternatives. It also helped ensure that management of these native mammal species was based on reputable science and expertise and not on myths or alarmist media. While the Minister’s statements emphasised that culling (killing) would not be allowed it is almost inevitable that individual deaths will occur directly or indirectly – especially if a targeted colony contains females close to birth or with infant or dependent young. Mild advice against disturbance during ‘breeding periods’ is included but there is no mention of penalties for doing so.
Below are some of the main reasons for leaving our flying-foxes alone.
1. The ecological importance of flying-foxes is critical. They are essential for the health and well-being of our bushlands and forests, and consequently for the health and well-being of other wildlife and for ourselves. Because of the large distances they cover flying-foxes play a unique role in maintaining the genetic diversity of the bush.
2. Flying-foxes are attracted to urban locations because huge areas of native bush have been cleared or degraded. When forests are cleared or devastated by either human activity or natural events bats will naturally look to orchards or urban parks and gardens for food and shelter.
3. Unless we choose to convert our towns and cities into treeless deserts, and unless we can massively restore the cleared forests and bush, flying-foxes will continue to visit and live in urban settings no matter what dispersal efforts take place.
4. Attempting to move a flying-fox colony is often very costly and rarely successful. Flying-foxes select roost sites for particular reasons and display a fidelity for particular camps, frequently returning to their birth-sites.
5. If the bats do move – even temporarily – they may well occupy sites that cause greater problems, including suburban backyards or school-grounds. They frequently return to the former roost when the disturbance measures cease, meaning that either the whole process must be repeated or abandoned – a huge waste of effort and expense.
6. Dispersal attempts carried out during pre-birthing, birthing and nurturing periods can be catastrophic: mothers may abort their young, flightless young may fall from trees or starve if their mothers are driven away. Colonies are often shared between species (eg Little Reds and Blacks) which breed at opposite times of the year, so it is difficult to time dispersal attempts to avoid these sensitive periods.
7.Casualties arising from dispersal efforts will place extra burdens on the resources of wildlife carers and rescue groups, already having to deal with casualties resulting from the re-introduction of lethal permits for fruit-growers.
8. A combination of stress incurred by dispersal and the actual death, injury or spontaneous abortion which is likely to occur to individual animals creates an inhumane situation which contravenes animal welfare principles.
9. In most animal populations, high levels of stress can impair immune systems making them more vulnerable to disease. With regard to the risk of bat-borne disease it is more logical to insist that flying-fox populations remain as healthy as possible. This means ensuring that food sources remain secure, social structure remains intact, and that mating can occur and infants be birthed and raised safely. Colony dispersal militates against these aims.
10. From a human health perspective the most important thing is not to keep shifting colonies from pillar to post but to ensure all Queenslanders understand the reality of risk, the need to avoid handling individual animals, and the need to seek prompt, safe and effective treatment if an encounter does occur. “Alert but not alarmed” is the most common-sense attitude to adopt.
11.Colony disturbance will increase the likelihood of human-bat contact if sick and injured bats, or flightless and starving young, are forced to the ground or into low vegetation in nearby residential areas. This may prove distressing for those who find them, as well as posing a health risk.
12.The presence of a colony in or close to an urban area provides a valuable educational resource for schools and the community, while the spectacle of the evening fly-out from a large colony has the potential to be an important visitor and tourist attraction, providing ecotourism opportunities for local operators and bringing tourist dollars into small regional and urban communities.