And yet, could the biggest threat to these unique animals be public perception?
After devastating fires tore through millions of hectares, killing over a billion native animals, there has never been a more important time to protect flying foxes (also known as fruit bats) — a species that entire ecosystems rely on for survival. Some species of flying fox have already declined by 95% over the last century — and many thousands more have died in the last couple of months alone. These sensitive animals are particularly susceptible to heat, and unforgiving Aussie summers have led to mass-deaths of fruit bats, including babies that are especially vulnerable during heat events. This past summer has seen entire colonies decimated during unforgiving heat waves — as many as 15% of one Melbourne colony died from heat stress in just three days.
Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been reports that members of the public are becoming increasingly concerned about sighting flying foxes in the wild – even though scientists concur that bats were not to blame for the transfer of the virus.
Despite grey-headed flying foxes being listed as a threatened species, the Australian Government removed what little protection they had under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). The former Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, allowed a fast-tracked approval to shift a flying fox ‘camp’ in Bateman’s Bay in NSW — against scientific advice. This decision not only left these animals even more vulnerable to distressing ‘control’ measures, but set a dangerous precedent — removing the only legal process to shield their crucial roosting habitats from disturbance and destruction.
Flying foxes are one of Australia’s most misunderstood and maligned native animals, and efforts to protect them can be hindered by misinformation and poor public sentiment. Fruit bats are often treated like ‘pests’ in areas where they roost — with hungry animals regularly trapped in netting around fruit trees, and locals complaining of the sound and smell. State governments continue to issue easy-to-obtain shooting permits to landowners, and cruel and damaging ‘dispersal’ methods as mentioned above leave flying foxes vulnerable to stress and exhaustion, especially during tough summer months. Tragically, even after the devastation of the bushfires, Wildlife Victoria has reported a spike in brutality towards flying foxes.
Never before has it been so crucial to protect flying foxes – not only for their sakes, but for the future of entire ecosystems and the many native animals that rely on them. But in order to change the future for fruit bats, first we need to change the public narrative about these unique Australian animals. Here are five very good reasons to foster compassion and respect for these ‘gardeners of the sky’: