Grey-headed flying foxes are experiencing a famine up and down the east coast of Australia, causing the starvation and death of this year’s generation of pups.
National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) ranger Brett Cann said at least 1000 baby flying foxes have perished in Wingham Brush in the past month, but cautions that number is a conservative estimate.
Wingham’s Danny and Margaret Cain, registered FAWNA NSW Inc. foster carers for bats, say over 2000 juvenile grey-headed flying foxes in the Brush have been lost so far, meaning 75% of this year’s generation of babies has been decimated.
Drought and habitat destruction are said to be the major cause, with not enough native blossoms to provide nectar, their primary food source, and fruit not reaching maturity.
With not enough food to sustain the adults, the mothers are shedding their young as they cannot produce enough milk to feed them.
NPWS are responsible for maintaining a statewide ‘flying fox census’ which is updated every three months. They say this season’s event is “part of a natural process. It’s a response to pressure,” and that nobody in the organisation is panicking.
FAWNA foster carers disagree, as the species is listed as threatened on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and under the NSW Threatened Species Act 1995, a fact that may astound locals as they watch thousands fly out overhead Wingham every evening in search for food.
“They’re only a few numbers shy of falling onto the endangered list. They haven’t hit that yet, but they’re well into the threatened category,” Danny said.
“This is why everyone’s arms are up in panic,” Margaret added.
The flying foxes are a crucial part of the ecology of Australia, as they pollinate eucalyptus trees, something that bees cannot do.
“I always say to people, ‘look you don’t have to like bats, but you have to understand their role. They’re just big bees. We’d have no eucalyptus trees. We’d be like Western Australia’,” Margaret said.
NPWS have closed the ‘flying fox loop’, the maternity section of the Wingham Brush boardwalk, indefinitely. Ranger Brett Cann said the closure is a compassionate response to relieve any extra stress the public might unintentionally cause just by walking through the maternity section of the camp.
The loop is also closed for hygiene reasons, as the carcasses are being left to rot on the ground.
“We used to go down and clean up, so it always looked very, very nice for the tourists, but this time National Parks have decided to let nature break it down and do its thing,” said Margaret.
Flying fox food
In contradiction to their popular name of ‘fruit bats’, grey-headed flying foxes will only eat fruit when they are unable to source nectar.
“They’re a visual animal. And they use scents to track down the nectar and blossoms. That’s their primary food,” Danny Cain said.
“They’ll eat fruit only because they can’t get blossom and nectar. And for them, fruit is like McDonalds . . . they can eat it, live on it, but it’s not good for them. The fruit we give them, it has a supplemented protein powder on it to give them the nutrients.”
FAWNA buys the fruit for bats in care and distributes it to the carers, who cut it up themselves to feed their charges.
Foster carers needed
Given that Wingham Brush is a major maternity site for the species in NSW, it is hard to believe that Danny and Margaret are the only carers looking after orphaned babies in Wingham.
The only other carers in the Manning Valley are in Hillville, Rainbow Flat, and John’s River. Many of the bats rescued in Wingham end up with carers in Kempsey.
Considering that each carer can only look after one orphaned pup a season, this means there are nowhere enough carers for the creatures.
Caring for the baby grey-headed flying foxes is a huge commitment, as the babies bond strongly with their carers.
“When they’re born, they’re 100 per cent vulnerable. They can’t do anything. That lasts a good four to five weeks,” Danny said.
And they don’t like sharing their ‘mums’ – to care for more than one baby, each time you swap animals you must change your clothes and wash your hands thoroughly, as at that age they cannot stand the smell of each other, particularly on their ‘mum’.
“We had four last week, and that nearly killed us,” Margaret said.
Call FAWNA on 6581 4141 (24 hour line) if you find a flying fox in trouble, or to inquire about courses for becoming a carer or visit their website www.fawna.org.au.