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.