Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media
Flying fox

Why everyone should care about Australia’s flying foxes.

Flying foxes have never been more at risk than they are now – between extreme heat waves, bushfires and habitat destruction, entire populations of this 'keystone species' have plummeted.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated May 28, 2024

Could the biggest threat to these unique animals be public perception?

When devastating fires tore through millions of hectares of Australian bushland in 2020,  billions of native animals were killed and up to one fifth of Australia’s forests were razed. The memories of Black Summer are still all too fresh for many, and the impact of this terrible time in the country’s history continues to this day. With ‘natural’ disasters set to continue, and already-sweltering Aussie summers predicted to become even more extreme, 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.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Flying fox

Some species of flying fox have already declined by 95% over the last century. These sensitive animals are particularly susceptible to heat, and unforgiving summers in recent years have led to mass deaths of fruit bats, including babies, who are especially vulnerable during heat events. During a heat wave in Melbourne, as many as 15% of an entire colony died of heat stress in only three days.

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 sometimes treated like ‘pests’ in areas where they roost — with hungry animals regularly trapped in dangerous netting around fruit trees, and locals complaining of the sound and smell.  Tragically, even after the devastation of the bushfires, the state-based wildlife rescue organisation, Wildlife Victoria, reported a spike in brutality towards flying foxes.

Never before has it been so crucial to protect flying foxes – not only for their sake 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, we first 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’:

1. Without them, entire ecosystems will collapse

Flying foxes are not only remarkable animals — they’re vital to our environment. Without them, entire ecosystems could collapse. These native animals are the only species that pollinate trees at night — when most Australian trees need to be pollinated. So they are responsible for helping to regenerate our forests and keep ecosystems healthy. They are a migratory and nomadic ‘keystone’ species; meaning that many other species of plants and animals rely on them for their survival and well-being. Flying foxes, like bees, help drive biodiversity, and faced with the threat of climate change, land clearing, and other human-caused ecological pressures, protecting them has never been more vital.

Flying foxes are foresters keeping the eco-system together. If we are to keep the remnants of our forests healthy, we need the flying foxes. The two are inseparable.
Dr Nicki Markus
Chief Conservation Office of Bush Heritage Australia

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Flying fox
A flying fox pup, rescued during a catastrophic heat event in Australia in 2018.

2. They’re like little dogs … but with wings

Do those big brown eyes and that little wet nose remind you of anyone? Wildlife carers who spend countless hours with these little creatures describe them as highly intelligent, inquisitive, full of personality, playful — and endearing. Orphaned babies called pups, enjoy ear massages and tummy rubs, and thrive on contact and affection from their human carers.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Flying fox
A juvenile orphaned flying fox, who was raised by a human carer before being successfully released back into the wild.
Image credit: Fly By Night Bat Clinic

3. They’re facing hardship and suffering at every turn

For many species of wildlife, every day in the wild presents another challenge, and with weather extremes predicted to get worse, their struggle to survive is getting tougher. Flying foxes are particularly susceptible to the heat, and every scorching summer will see countless bats die from heat stress.

As if that weren’t bad enough — land clearing and the use of dangerous and harmful backyard fruit tree netting continue to cause untold suffering and death in many parts of Australia. Thankfully, the dangers of fruit tree netting have been recognised in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory where the use of traditional backyard fruit tree netting is now illegal – a move that will hopefully be adopted by other states to protect wildlife.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have now outlawed the use of harmful fruit tree netting in an effort to protect this threatened species.
Image credit: Fly By Night Bat Clinic Melbourne

4. They could be on their way to extinction

Tragically, populations of flying foxes across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are in decline. Both the Grey-headed flying fox and Spectacled flying fox have declined by at least 95% in the past century, with massive losses in the past 30 years. Some researchers believe they could be functionally extinct by 2050; still, they are being targeted with lethal and non-lethal measures.

While it is now illegal across Australia to shoot bats for crop protection, a phase-out is currently underway in Queensland until 2026. The Queensland government will sadly continue to issue shooting permits to fruit producers during this period. But it’s not only deliberate killing that is posing a threat.

Despite Grey-headed flying foxes being listed as a threatened species, the Australian Government further stripped back 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 process for local governments to disturb and try to move flying fox colonies. Not only did this decision go against scientific advice, but it also left every flying fox even more vulnerable to distressing and dangerous ‘control’ measures like the use of water cannons, smoke machines, lasers and loud noises.

This dangerous precedent essentially removed the only legal process to shield their crucial roosting habitats from disturbance and destruction.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Flying fox
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

5. They are precious native animals who need us — and we’re letting them down

Flying foxes are essentially providing a community service;  they are keeping Australian native forests and their inhabitants alive! For their invaluable work, these natives are treated with disdain by some councils and politicians who employ poor and unscientific management schemes that not only do nothing to restore the balance between humans and wildlife, but can perpetuate misinformation and ignorance about these animals.

Bats fly by night in search of food and return to the same trees each day to rest with their family. Flying foxes primarily migrate along the East coast of Australia — moving in groups (called camps or colonies) as native foods like eucalypt blossom come into season. They have done this for thousands of years — but over time, these colonies are being surrounded by human development, with locals complaining about their presence, and using dangerous netting their trees to prevent flying foxes from eating the fruit.

Sadly, flying foxes are no match for developers, or councils responding to angered communities. The result: colonies are targeted and harassed with various distressing techniques, forcing them to move from their familiar habitat— which is not only cruel, and costly to taxpayers, but also ineffective. What is really needed here is compassion and understanding for this unique and important animal.

Be a hero for Australian fruit bats

Long-term solutions will be required to protect these unique and vital native animals and the forests and animals relying on them. One of the biggest threats to the survival of flying foxes is habitat destruction. Large continuous roosting and foraging habitats need to be protected to ensure fruit bats can survive well into the future.

  • Consider joining your local ‘Friends of’ group to learn how you can support efforts to protect habitat in your local area. Contact your local council for more information.
  • Spread the word. Most people know very little about flying foxes, so help inform your friends and family by sharing this article, and encouraging understanding and tolerance of these unique native animals.
  • For simple and meaningful actions you can take today, check out our three things you can do right now to help flying foxes guide.
3 ways you can help flying foxes today