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.