Bats out of Hell


Why is it so easy to lose perspective on environmental issues? With so many regulatory organisations and frameworks, multiple perceptions on the “right” way to conserve or protect, Media interference, and the ghosts of environmental lessons from the past breathing down our neck, it is easy to feel like you’re living inside an Escher drawing when you try and dissect any of today’s environmental concerns.

Take the Hendra virus issue currently making news along Australia’s east coast. Horses are dying after contracting the virus from flying foxes and people are dying after contracting the virus from horses. Now other domestic animals are proving susceptible to the virus, including dogs, cats and guinea pigs.

I don’t wish to resort to dramatic statements, but there is no other way to say it – entire human communities are being plagued by bat colonies, with many sleep-deprived residents living in fear of their health. My mother is one of these – she has been putting up with a flying fox colony that likes to roost in a eucalypt just outside her bedroom window for nearly 10 years. The colony started off small and only visited occasionally. Over the last few years their numbers have swelled and their loyalty to mum’s tree has been cemented. She averages about 3 or 4 intermittent hours of sleep a night and spends hours most weeks scrubbing bat excrement off her roof, to no avail (her water supply is from a rainwater tank).

Other communities have it even worse – places like Gayndah and Southport house so many bats that people are ready to leave town, are losing business and are having to seal themselves inside their houses in futile attempts to escape the stench and noise of their new neighbours. In Gayndah, the raw water intake for the town is below the bat colony, and the water under their roost has tested positive for E. coli. (Gayndah has just received a permit to break up their troublesome bat colony from State Government.)

Gayndah's troublesome bat colony (Picture: Mark Calleja, Courier Mail http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/bat-resettlement-begins-in-gayndah/story-fn6ck2c6-1226113716423)

The state government’s response to all this is ridiculous. People are being “reminded” of potential $100,000 fines and jail time if they try and scare the bats away. A woman in Southport used an air horn to try and frighten the bats away, and it wasn’t long before she was “visited” by DERM who apparently confiscated the horn. She claims she is being threatened with prosecution, and DERM says they are just “following procedure”. The ABC has reported the woman’s story here and DERM’s side here (the bat story starts about 6:20).

Now questions are being asked whether the species still needs to be listed – there are so many reports of huge colonies throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales that it seems obvious even to the casual observer that their numbers are by no means in decline.

There is some speculation that the number estimates that fuelled the species listing may be flawed, but I can’t find enough information to prove this could be true. What is worth consideration is the spatial discrepancies that arise when considering a threatened species listing. Grey-headed flying foxes are listed as nationally vulnerable because as a national census their numbers are low. But these numbers are concentrated along the east coast of Queensland and northern New South Wales – and they have concentrated there because we have aggregated our communities, and all the attractive resources we provide, in these areas. Yet we now complain about their presence.

The grey-headed flying fox, Pteropus poliocephalus (Source: Dept Sustainability , Environment etc. (Cth) (http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/science/abbbs/photos.html#pic11)

So this is how we find ourselves in the Escher drawing. The spread of human urbanisation forces an animal species out of its natural habitat so we list it as endangered to protect it; the animal eventually returns to encroach on our settlements (sometimes because it was their settlement first and sometimes because our lifestyles provide such a plethora of resources they can’t decline our invitation) and populations swell to numbers that can no longer be considered vulnerable; huge populations of the species then create problems for the human settlements they overrun, spreading disease, polluting waterways and causing noise pollution; humans try and reclaim their homes from an animal that thinks it is their home too; and the government punishes the humans for trying to “harm” an endangered species that nobody thinks is endangered anymore, because there is absolutely no evidence to suggest it. But if we take them off the endangered list, people will start killing them without a second thought and we’ll be back to square one again (bats are still an important part of their ecosystems and if we wipe them out we will simply create more problems).

Meanwhile, the more we try and “scare the bats away”, the more we stress them; the more stressed the bats get, the more potential there is for disease to spread (remember how you always come down with the flu when you’re run down?) and the more noise and irritation we have to put up with.

Are you confused yet?  

The role of threatened species lists is complicated. We need them because we haven’t yet figured out how to respect the environment enough to carry out our “human” activities without stomping all over animals and ecosystems to do them. At the same time, we need to be open to change and allow those lists to be reassessed at regular intervals.

Monitoring animal populations is extremely hard and we can never know exactly how many of any one species exist at any moment in time. We have to make an effort to protect a vulnerable species from harm to allow it to regain some ground, but we need to be prepared when populations of that species then peak, in the absence of natural control. Nature is all about Balance – extremes of anything generally don’t last long under natural conditions.

Nature is dynamic, ever-changing, flowing, moving, circulating and evolving. The human constructs of environmental policy need to reflect this dynamism – Nature cannot be “managed” full stop…but we certainly don’t have a chance with rigidity and tunnel vision on any side of the fence.

© Manu Saunders 2011

2 thoughts on “Bats out of Hell

  1. Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. August 14, 2011 / 7:44 AM

    Manu’s writing is superb; she gives us a great deal to think about without being doctrinaire. As she suggests nature is dynamic and resilient rather than rigid. So we might learn how to do manage things in an ecological way — always looking for the possibility of positive synergy (i.e. win-wins). A better understanding of the bats and what makes them tick might help to solve the problem.

    Thanks, Hank Cole

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    • manuelinor August 14, 2011 / 1:19 PM

      Thank you, Hank.. well said!

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