Tolga Hospital

Australia, both the Earth’s smallest continent and its largest island, is home to a vast array of landscapes and environments. From Brisbane, we travelled north 1,700 km along the coast, up into the Tropics and on to Cairns to visit the Tolga Bat Hospital. Here are found some species absent in Brisbane and some of the problems they face are also different.

We were welcomed by Jenny Maclean, the founder and life and soul of the hospital, who began her own particular crusade in 1990 when she looked after two semi-paralysed bats. Over the years she has managed to set up the admirable installations that we visited, which are capable of looking after around 300 orphaned bats a year, as well as hundreds of adults. The hospital is in an area of low population density where a network of local volunteers would be impossible to set up. Thus, Jenny alone has gradually set up all the infrastructures she needs for her work: hospital for bats, rehabilitation cages, flight cages, a visitor centre, and comfortable accommodation for the volunteers whose work is essential for the running of the centre. Volunteers and sponsors alike come from the world over and ensure that the centre can continue with its work.

The species that most often finds its way into the centre is the threatened spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), of which hundreds are orphans of adults affected by the lethal disease caused by the paralysis tick Ixodes holocyclus. The first cases were detected in the 1980s, seemingly the result of an unfortunate human-related chain of events. These ticks, native to Australia, do not climb trees and so it is likely that bats have never naturally been exposed to their bites. Thus, they have never developed the same resistance to their bites as terrestrial marsupials and invariably die if they are bitten by this tick. In the mid-1980s a nightshade, Solanum mauritianum, a small shrub native to South America, began to spread throughout the region. The succulent fruits of this plant, the ‘tobacco weed’ as it is known in Australia, tempt the flying foxes to fly at much lower heights and occasionally even low enough to enter into the realm of the ticks. The conflict that arises is inevitable and there is no obvious solution given the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the plant.

Education and raising awareness of issues affecting bats are the two other basic principles of the centre. During the guided visit led by Jenny, we are accompanied by a group of visitors, volunteers from a local information office. The visit begins with a friendly chat during which Jenny explains the problems affecting bats, the need to conserve them and how her centre works. After a quick video presentation, the visit ends up with a tour of the installations, which does not fail to bring a smile to the faces of all participants: seeing bats in close-up and how they approach visitors as if they were competing in a ‘best photo’ competition leaves no one indifferent.

Hospital entrance
Hospital entrance
Spectacled flying fox  (Pteropus conspicillatus)
Spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus)
Visiting the flight cages
Visiting the flight cages
Bat drinking
Bat drinking
Jenny Maclean with her bats
Jenny Maclean with her bats
Somewhere to rest
Somewhere to rest
Jenny bids us farewell with some ‘bat cookies’
Jenny bids us farewell with some ‘bat cookies’

What are we trying to conserve?

The four species of flying foxes in Australia are all members of the genus Pteropus and in daytime all rest by hanging from trees. The noise their colonies make and their excrements that fall to earth are two of the reasons that these bats are so unpopular in the region.

The conflict between humans and bats is especially severe when bat colonies form in urban parks or near houses. In these cases, local people or authorities often use quite aggressive methods to persuade the animals to ‘move on’. This activity places colonies at risk as suitable places for bat roosts are increasingly hard to find and lead to confrontations between conservationists, who advocate pacific tolerance, and many local people and institutions.

In the mangroves near the house of Geoff Redman on the outskirts of Brisbane, a colony of 25,000 Pteropus scapulatus established itself a couple of months before our visit. This flying fox is the smallest of its genus and weighs just over 500 g. Its populations migrate through eastern and northern Australia in search of the nectar that they find in the flowers of native trees.

Geoff is an active member of local naturalist and social organizations and is a great fan of the mangrove swamps. From his backyard a short boardwalk takes him to an extraordinary concentration of mangroves that he shows us with a mixture of passion and concern. The branches of the mangroves give way easily under the weight of the hundreds of bats that often hang there. Some mangrove patches already contain dead trees, some of which are rare and threatened species. The balance of our visit to date is dead mangroves, many fallen branches on the ground and a pressing doubt: what are we trying to conserve?

Mangrove branch broken by bats
Mangrove branch broken by bats
Inside the mangroves
Inside the mangroves
Little red flying foxes <em>Pteropus scapulatus</em> inside the mangroves
Little red flying foxes Pteropus scapulatus inside the mangroves
Geoff Redman shows us the mangroves
Geoff Redman shows us the mangroves
Little red flying foxes<em>Pteropus scapulatus</em> flying over the mangroves
Little red flying foxesPteropus scapulatus flying over the mangroves
Mangrove fruit
Mangrove fruit

Batty boat

Just an hour before sunset, around 80 people gather around the jetty at Mowbray Park in Brisbane ready to board the Batty Boat. They have been attracted for a variety of reasons – the chance to get to know the flying foxes better; the possibility of a close-up view of a colony; and the desire to help in bat conservation. The money raised by the activity will contribute to wildlife conservation projects organized by the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

The crew fills every minute of the upriver trip with abundant information about bats and comments on the areas we pass through. The rigour and the desire to raise public awareness is an integral part of the message that accompanies this pleasant cruise. Members of Bat Conservation and Rescue Queensland have set up a stall with all type of material about bats and have brought along a number of young bats that passengers can bottle feed during the trip.

Young or old, alone or with families, a highly varied cross-section of people has come along on the trip. At dusk, we arrive at our destination, the island of Indooroopilly, where a large colony of flying foxes has thrived for a number of summers. The aim is to witness the moment in which the thousands of bats in the colony take to the wing over the river. Once it is too dark to see the bats’ silhouettes against the night sky, we begin our return through a landscape changed by the effects of the city lights that surround us.

The final number of flying foxes that flew out from the island was 10 or maybe less – and some of the people on the trip failed to see even one bat. The crew explain that since the cruises began in 1984 this is only the second time that this has happened, the first being in 2011. Bat colonies tend to move around and in recent years they have begun to note a worrying decline in bat numbers. Nevertheless, this observation does not seem to cause a great deal of worry amongst the people present, further evidence that the conservation of bats in Australia is not exactly a subject of pressing public concern. The message is clear, however, and, despite the damper it puts on proceedings, will help raise awareness amongst Australians in relation to the conservation issues that threaten their native bats.

Souvenirs from the Batty Boat
Souvenirs from the Batty Boat
Feeding a young bat during the cruise
Feeding a young bat during the cruise
The Brisbane river
The Brisbane river
Waiting for the bats
Waiting for the bats
Brisbane at night
Brisbane at night

Dedicated and swimming against the tide

At 9.15 on the morning of our third day in Australia Louise phones us to say that the owners of a house in the Wynnum area of Brisbane have just called to ask her to come and rescue a bat that has got itself trapped in the palm tree in their garden. We get in the car and the GPS takes us to our destination. As we arrive, we see Louise waving to us from some way off and indicating which house it is. She too has just arrived and, after a quick evaluation of the situation, has looked up in her emergency management application the name of the nearest active member of Bat Conservation and Rescue Queensland who has the appropriate instruments for rescuing the bat.

Louise Saunders has been the president of this NGO for seven years and its organization, scale and unconditional dedication to bats constantly surprises us when we see it in action. Almost immediately, reinforcements arrive with an extendible ladder strapped to a car. It is soon unloaded and then placed against the tree without any further ado. Climbing the tree is slightly perilous as the bat has got a foot trapped at a height of six metres and the leaves of the tree make it difficult to position the ladder safely.

Whilst we help free the bat, Louise talks to the owners of house and explains to them that the exotic palm trees such as the one they have in their garden pose dangers to bats. She recommends that the owners either replace it with an autochthonous species or remove the fruit to avoid attracting more bats. The BCRQ has recorded up to six ways in which bats can get trapped when feeding on fruit in these recently planted palm trees.

Aside from bats trapped in palm trees, rescues are required under a series of many different circumstances – bats trapped in nets protecting fruit trees, bats caught in barbed-wire fences, and so on. An increasing number of bats affected by the recent heat waves have had to be rescued. This new phenomenon, associated with climate change, on 4 January 2014 led to at least 45.000 deaths of flying foxes and over 1,000 orphaned yound in Brisbane.

The worries of the owners of the house, however, are directed towards another factor that Louise knows all too well and whose origin, she believes, lies in stories appearing in the press: worry about the Hendra virus, which has caused a number of deaths amongst the region’s horses. Louise reassures the owners that it has not been established that bats transmit this disease despite the unfounded claims in the media attributing the spread of the virus to bats. She also reminds the owners that bats disperse seeds and pollinate many of Australia’s native trees and as such provide an irreplaceable ecosystem service. Nevertheless, it’s probably not the first time that Louise has had to explain this today and it is likely that it will not be the last!

Louise examines the bat carefully once she has it in her hands and after scrutinizing its injuries she judges that it is unlikely to recover. It will probably have to be put down, a practice that is unfortunately part of some rescues. Even so, the members of the BCRQ continue working diligently to attend the around 20 daily phone calls they receive. The lack of support from official bodies, the press and from local people does not seem to stop these volunteers from caring for their bats, often alone and often having to swim against the tide.

Bats as neighbours
Bats as neighbours
Louise Saunders carrying out flight tests
Louise Saunders carrying out flight tests
Rescue data sheet
Rescue data sheet

Women with a heart

After our experiences in Indonesia we headed for Australia to learn more about the complex relationship between humans and bats by visiting local bat recuperation centres and seeing how they work with local communities.

In Brisbane we paid a visit to a member of the Bat Conservation and Rescue Queensland (BCRQ), a NGO dedicated to bat conservation. Its main work revolves around the rehabilitation of injured, under-nourished and orphaned bats, and awareness raising. In general, Australians have little fondness for bats and so it is difficult to raise the money needed to look after the around 600 flying foxes that they rescue every year. The lack of funding is made up for by the great dedication of their members, all of who are volunteers and who look after bats in their homes.

We were welcomed by Denise Wade, vice-president and coordinator of the group’s rescue efforts, in her home where she cares for around 30 bats. Her professionalism in bat care and her passion for the work she does was obvious. She establishes an emotional, almost maternal, link with each bat, which is essential if she is to provide her bats orphans with the constant care they require. Bats are part of her house: some rooms are dedicated to their rehabilitation and the decoration of the whole house is reminiscent of bats. There is a constant flow of new bats to be cared for and Denise has had only one free weekend in the last seven years! We also visited the houses of other bat-carers from the group – Connie, Christina and Louise – and found the same story: women who give up their free time to look after injured or orphaned bats.

The only part of the group’s installations that wasn’t located in members’ houses was the release cage that the BCRQ has on the outskirts of Brisbane. There, we realized just how much time and money goes into feeding almost 200 bats: for over an hour, six volunteers (once again, mainly women) cut up and placed in feeders the almost 50 kg of fruit that is the bats’ daily food ration. The group’s entire annual budget – around 18,000 dollars – is spent on buying fruit and a large part of these women’s free time is spent looking after the bats.

 

Louise Saunders and Denise Wade and the film crew
The entrance to the house of one of the BCRQ’s bat carers
The entrance to the house of one of the BCRQ’s bat carers
Denise Wade looking after a small red flying fox <em>Pteropus scapulatus</em>
Denise Wade looking after a small red flying fox Pteropus scapulatus
Cage for young bats
Cage for young bats
The film crew with the bats
The film crew with the bats
Bat with baby’s dummy
Bat with baby’s dummy
Preparing the fruit
Preparing the fruit
Eating the fruit
Eating the fruit