On our last night in Australia, Jenny Maclean from the Tolga Bat Hospital suggested that we head for Herberton, on the fertile Atherton plateau. The Wild River runs through the town, which lives up to the name of its river since, for the last couple of months, thousands of little red flying foxes (Pteropus scapulatus) had been roosting there.
They seem to occupy all available branches and trunks of the trees and, although we are told that there are over 100,000 bats in the colony, once there we realize that it would be an impossible task to count all the bats that roost there. Their mobility and the sheer size of their ‘camps’, the name given to their roosts, means that nobody has any idea of how many flying foxes there are in Australia nor of the trends occurring in their populations.
We admire and film the sight whilst vehicles and pedestrians cross the bridge and pass through the colony. Some people stop to admire it, surprised to different degrees, whilst others, more used to its presence, continue on their way despite the loud noises of the bats that emanate from all sides. A couple of cars stop and make noise in an attempt to scare the bats (only moderately successfully as the noise is lost in the immensity of the colony).
The effects of the bats’ presence are visible: noise and damaged trees, which annoys many local people. The benefits are harder to pin down. Jenny Maclean skilfully fends off a question by a visitor to her hospital who queries the need to preserve these creatures by saying “If over 100,000 nectar-eating bats that pollinate plants have been in our area for the last couple of months, where they obviously find enough nectar to get by, then don’t you think that they must be providing the ecosystem with some kind of service?”
The following day in mid-afternoon our plane leaves Australia en route to Singapore. We have visited Indonesia, where the outlook is bleaker, and Australia. The TV screen in the plane shows our route, with the areas of the world where it is already night shaded out. Despite the fact that we are travelling 1,000 km/hour westwards, almost as if we didn’t want to leave daytime behind, the night inevitably catches up with us before we reach our destination. Will the race to save the world’s largest bats have the same outcome?