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

Bats in Indonesia: from the temple to the kitchen

The dictionary states that ambivalence refers to the existence in the same person of two conflicting feelings about the same object. This is exactly the feeling we have as we leave Indonesia. Our experiences in the archipelago go from one extreme to another (without forgetting the intermediate feelings either!). The cruelty of the markets of Tomohon on Sulawesi, where bats are sold for human consumption, clashes with the veneration with which they are treated on Goa Lawah, the temple of the bats on Bali. And between these extremes, there are the many bats that are kept in cages as pets.

The flying foxes, large fruit-eating bats, are – as far as we could see – the only bats that are actually eaten, but are also the only ones that are worshipped. A number of people explain to us what bats taste like, how to cook them and enumerate some of their curative properties. Fortunately, these tastes are not shared by everyone and seem to be less widespread amongst the younger generations who often turn their noses up at the idea of eating wild animals.

We visited the islands of Sulawesi, Bali, Flores and Rinca, and then head for Brisbane, Australia, where we hope to appreciate other aspects of the complex relationship between humans and bats. On all these islands we met people who eat bats, but also some who assured us that they had never eaten bats nor would never do so. Indonesia is a country characterized by a mix of religions and different ethnic groups, and this diversity is reflected in the sheer variety of distinct relationships between bats and people.

Both on Sulawesi and Bali, bats are sold for different reasons. Bat sellers remark that every year they have to go further to get hold of them. Now that local populations have been decimated, Borneo, the paradigm of a tropical jungle paradise, has become the chief supplier of bats to neighbouring islands. The few colonies of large bats that we see confirm the fact that bats in Indonesia only survive in totally inaccessible colonies, either because they are regarded as sacred or because the mangrove forests are completely impenetrable.

Beach in the Tangkoko National Park, Sulawesi
Beach in the Tangkoko National Park, Sulawesi
Celebes crested macaque, endemic to Sulawesi
Celebes crested macaque, endemic to Sulawesi
Dogs waiting their turn, Tomohon, Sulawesi
Dogs waiting their turn, Tomohon, Sulawesi
Macaques in the market at Tomohon, Sulawesi
Macaques in the market at Tomohon, Sulawesi
Bats prepared for sale, Tomohon, Sulawesi
Bats prepared for sale, Tomohon, Sulawesi
Bats on sale, Tomohon, Sulawesi
Bats on sale, Tomohon, Sulawesi
<em>Paniki</em>, typical bat dish, Sulawesi
Paniki, typical bat dish, Sulawesi
Colours in the market at Tomohon, Sulawesi
Colours in the market at Tomohon, Sulawesi
Goa Lawah, the temple of the bats, Bali
Goa Lawah, the temple of the bats, Bali
Sofian, our guide in Rinca
Sofian, our guide in Rinca
Travelling by boat to Rinca
Travelling by boat to Rinca
Temple of Luhur Batukaru, Bali
Temple of Luhur Batukaru, Bali
The Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali
The Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali
Pasar Burung, the bird market, Denpasar, Bali
Pasar Burung, the bird market, Denpasar, Bali

 

A sky full of bats

Indonesia presents itself to visitors as the country of the 17,000 islands, each of which seems to have something that makes it unique. The islands of Komodo and Rinca in the east of the archipelago are home to one of the region’s most extraordinary animals, the Komodo dragon. A close relative to the lizards, the enormous size of this species – up to 2-metres long  – gives it the aspect of a relict from prehistoric eras.

We leave port Labuan Bajo and head for Rinca, somewhat baffled by the information we have been given and not knowing for how long we will be sailing or whether or not we will be able to see the dragons. The only thing certain is that we will drop anchor at dusk near Pulau Kalong, the island of the bats, where we will be able to watch the flying fox colony take to the air.

Still excited by having seeing the dragons, we reach Pulau Kalong along with four other ships full of tourists. Kamel, our guide, explains that some have come just to enjoy the spectacle of the flying foxes that we are about to witness.

The island is covered by an impenetrable mangrove forest and, according to Kamel, is a safe refuge for the bats, who rest unseen in the centre of the island by day. As dusk falls we are astonished by the sheer quantity of flying foxes that rise up into the sky to fly off across the sea to the neighbouring island of Flores, just 4 km away. The sky is flooded by their silhouettes, which look somewhat clumsy and slow moving from a distance.

The show lasts for almost an hour. We return to port when it is dark, accompanied by the final few bats to emerge, who fly over the water around our boat as if they were bidding us farewell. We wonder where they are going. In the end, we leave the island with a certain sense of satisfaction that in Indonesia the more modern ways of appreciating nature are beginning to include bats.

Approaching the Komodo dragons
Approaching the Komodo dragons
Arriving on Pulau Kalong, the island of the bats
Arriving on Pulau Kalong, the island of the bats
Tourist boats watching the show
Tourist boats watching the show
Flying foxes over our boat
Flying foxes over our boat
Returning to the port of Labuan Bajo
Returning to the port of Labuan Bajo

Beauty behind bars

Quite possibly all cultures share an admiration for nature, which can often be hard to appreciate if you come from elsewhere. We visited the bird market at Pasar Burung in Denpasar (Bali), where we expect to find bats on sale. The profusely decorated homemade cages seem to compete in beauty with the numerous colourful species of exotic wild birds that are up for sale. However, a closer look at the back rooms of some of these shops reveals a less charming reality: cages in which dozens of birds are crowded into minute spaces waiting to be bought or put on show; baby monkeys chained up in the dark that watch us pass by, their eyes wide-open in fright; birds of all sorts kept in paper boxes with neither food nor water; and bats kept in minute cages in which they barely fit. The bat seller tells us that they are well looked after, that they live a long time, and that people buy them to keep at home. The cost of a bat in Bali confirms that they are not sold for food: each bat costs in the region of 15–75 €, depending on the species. It is increasingly difficult to find bats on Bali, we are told, and so the bats on sale here come from the neighbouring island of Borneo.

Craft bird cages
Craft bird cages
Caged red-headed weavers <em>Amadina erythrocephala</em>
Caged red-headed weavers Amadina erythrocephala
Flying foxes on sale as pets
Flying foxes on sale as pets
Macaque babies waiting to be put on sale
Macaque babies waiting to be put on sale

The adoration of bats in Bali

The island of Bali lies at the centre of the vast Indonesian archipelago and is the region’s main tourist destination. It is well known for the countless Hindu temples that adorn the island and it is precisely one of these temples that has brought us here. Goa Lawah (bat cave in Balinese) provides visitors with a surprising image of a sanctuary in which thousands of bats take shelter and are protected by local worshippers. It is forbidden to enter the cave and all living creatures must be respected and protected. Those who fail to respect these rules fall into disgrace or even risk death. Mangku, the temple’s priest, tells us that “Humans must live in harmony with themselves, with God and with Nature. Bats have always lived in the temple and so he or she who doesn’t want the bats here shouldn’t come to the temple.” We travel around the island looking for evidence of bat worship. We find that in the Hindu creed, well illustrated on statues and engravings in the temples, the image of the bat is not present. Neither do we detect them in the forests where we would most expect to find them. The sanctuary of Goa Lawah seems to be the last refuge for bats on Bali.

Entrance to the temple of Goa Lawah
Entrance to the temple of Goa Lawah
The bat cave
The bat cave
Bringing offerings to the temple
Bringing offerings to the temple

Our impressions of Sulawesi

We leave the island with a bittersweet taste in our mouths: a prosperous and happy society but with no awareness that their natural treasures are gradually disappearing. This is a familiarly painful sensation. In this particular case, economic progress has converted the trade in bat meat into a dangerous road with no way back. And neither must we only worry about the bats on Sulawesi, for they are endangered on the neighbouring islands as well. We take over an hour to fly from one end of the island to the other and as we fly below us we note the succession of jungle-covered mountains that carpet the island. Perhaps not all is lost; nevertheless, as biologists we find it hard to believe that these bat populations, which reproduce so slowly, will survive so much external pressure.

Wild animals on sale: pythons, rats and pigs
Wild animals on sale: pythons, rats and pigs
Endemic macaques and domestic dogs ready for sale
Endemic macaques and domestic dogs ready for sale
Traditional fisherman in Tangkoko National Park.
Traditional fisherman in Tangkoko National Park.