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Grey-headed Flying-fox

Life in the air

“Shooters must conform to all aspects of the general licence to harm Flying-foxes, including the completion and submission of the Flying-fox record sheet after the shooting program.” Government of New South Wales, Office of Environment & Heritage

Peter and Andrea Hylands

October 14, 2022

Almost five thousand of these beautiful animals, from this camp in Melbourne, have died here because of extreme heat events in the last week or so. That number would have been far higher if it were not for the efforts of the Friends of Bats and Bushcare, Wildlife Victoria and other individuals and animal organisations. We take this species to be an indicator species for what is to follow and we look at the way other wildlife is being treated, despite the most catastrophic environmental circumstances in Australia, nothing has changed.


2019 had been a particularly bad year for wildlife around the world, and particularly bad in Australia (and what was to follow in 2020 anda few days later, was even more devastating), and for numerous reasons. Just one reason, which is accelerating to the top of the long list of threatening processes on the Australian continent, is of course climate change.

People in Australia are also suffering, not just from the devastating fires that destroy homes and livelihoods, but from a vast range of climate change impacts, the smoke filled air we all breathe being just another. The economic impacts are now dire too.

We have always loved Flying Foxes, they are endearing and endlessly fascinating to watch, hours go by before you know it. It is because of the size of the populations in these camps, often several thousand adults, mothers with their young clinging to them, that the impact of climate change on this genera is so evident and so very distressing.

Flying Fox populations are plummeting (the Grey-headed and Spectacled Flying-foxes of Eastern Australia by more than 95 per cent in the last 80 years or so, with a significant decline occurring over the last 30 years).

Because of the heat, Flying Foxes are falling from the sky and the young bats suffer very badly, constantly crying for their mothers.

Fruit Bats

This story is about bats, particularly the family Pteropodidae, that is, the fruit bats that inhabit the Australia Pacific Region, Africa (Europe) and parts of Asia. This family of animals feed on nectar and pollen and many of these species also feed on soft fruits, traditionally from the forests, which rely on fruit bats in their reproductive cycle as pollinators and distributors of seeds.

There are around 150 species in this family of bats and New Guinea, where one third of these species live, is fruit bat central. Australia has eight species, six of which are also present in New Guinea.

There is a very significant variation in body size between species of fruit bats in a range of 5 grams to 1 kilo. With a few exceptions, the Australasian Tube-nosed Bat being one, most fruit bat species have similar features. Adaptation for nectar feeding has produced a long and narrow snout in some species of fruit bat, which does differ from the mega-bat species of Flying Fox with their dog like heads.

Flying Foxes

Here we are going to discuss Flying Foxes (the Pteropus), the large mega-bats from the fruit bat family that live in ‘camps’ which can have significant populations of these animals. Flying Foxes will ‘eat’ the juice and smaller seeds of the fruits they consume, spitting out the pulp, the results below our feet another sign, if you needed one, that Flying Foxes are present.

Flying Foxes of course conduct much of their existence upside down, suspended from a branch of a tree, almost as if they were pegged to it. They sleep in their camps during the day. They also have the look of a strangely wrapped parcel, suspended in mid-air, with an occasional head of mother or baby appearing from the complicated wrapping. 

During late pregnancy female Grey-headed Flying-foxes segregate from the males and in October give birth to a single young. Mothers carry their young for four to five weeks and this includes travel to feeding sites.

“In recent years, Flying Foxes have also increasingly come into conflict with humans as Flying Fox camps (or ‘roosts’) have become more numerous in urban areas.  The reasons for the increased urbanisation of Flying Foxes are complex. They include loss of foraging resources due to vegetation clearing, especially winter flowering species; and increased availability of reliable food resources in urban environments, such as parks and gardens and backyard bird-attracting plants. In addition, prolonged droughts or extreme rains can negatively impact on flowering and can force Flying Foxes into new areas, resulting in the establishment of new camps in sometimes undesirable locations”. Australasian Bat Society

Sitting among these animals we watch intently, we listen to the continual conversations, the camps can be noisy, an eruption of squeaks and activity, the graceful flapping Pterosaur like flight, a squabble of sorts here, some flapping to keep cool there. Then an occasional bat leaves its branch and in flight, gracefully dips its feet into the river below, the spray from this activity helping to cool the bat, every little counts.

Extinction threats

At least 50 percent of the world's Flying Fox species are in very deep trouble indeed. Deforestation, hunting, the government sponsored mass killings as in Mauritius, Queensland, New South Wales and others and the high temperatures that now devastate camp populations. 

“Despite claims in the media to the contrary, there is currently no evidence that the populations of the two vulnerable species of Flying Fox (eastern Australia) are increasing”. Australasian Bat Society

The bat killings in the state of Victoria were stopped almost as soon as the government had commenced its program of killing the Grey-headed Flying-fox Pteropus poliocephalus because of actions by bat groups and the general public.

The Queensland Government, notorious for its poor environmental record and policies, re-introduced the shooting of the Grey-headed, Black, Little Red and Spectacled Flying-foxes in 2012 (that is the four species that still survive in Queensland with the exception of the Large-eared Flying-fox in the Torres Strait and the already extinct Dusky Flying-fox), and with the usual disregard for common sense, the killing was introduced on Threatened Species Day.

“Although maligned by orchardists, the Grey-headed Flying-fox does not normally eat cultivated fruit unless its natural foods are scarce, preferring the blossoms and nectar of eucalyptus and native fruits and lilipillies”. Australian Museum

Shooting bats is a difficult business, many are wounded and the young bats, which rely on their mother’s milk, die slowly from dehydration and starvation. Of course at least some Australian politicians and their acolytes insist this is humane, many do not care.

Conservation status

Classification of the status of species in Australia (threatened, endangered etc) is not keeping up with the rapid change in the fortunes of many species, with governments in Australia, Victoria is just one example, describing species in serious decline as overabundant. This bizarre behaviour will need to change and fast. The behaviour, or lack of it, relating to Australia’s wondrous wildlife is not dissimilar to the way in which many issues surrounding climate change are ignored, the consequences of this head-in-the-sand approach will be dire for us all, including the bats.

“There is no empathy, no understanding of when the crueltyand killing needs to stop”.

The very saddest of things here, given the numerous pressures on so many of Australia’s native species, is that there appear to be no boundaries in relation to the way in which much of Australia’s wildlife is treated, not even the dire impacts of climate change as we see it today inAustralia, appear to moderate this behaviour. The Australian public and international visitors are misled about the ways in which Australia’s wildlife is being cared for, it is in reality being exterminated.

“All native wildlife is protected in Victoria.It is an offence to kill, take, control or harm wildlife under the Wildlife Act 1975. It is also an offence to use poisons to kill, destroy or take wildlife”. Victorian Government

Australian wildlife is NOT protected

As an example, some other states are worse, the Victoria Government, in the ten-year period 2009-2018 inclusive, issued a total of 32,147 Authorities to Control Wildlife (ATCWs) for 1,513,605 animals across some 80 species of Australian wildlife with many applications for the killing likely to be frivolous and with unsupervised outcomes. This does not include the four million or so native waterbirds killed in the period by shooting in Victoria, nor does it include ‘unprotected’ native mammal (wombats are one example) and bird species.

On top of this, in the period 2014-2018, the Victorian Government has issued, claiming booming populations (which is false), commercial licenses, authorised under Kangaroo Pet Food Trial Permits (KPFT) to kill 390,886 Kangaroos, of which around 212,000 animals were actually processed and turned into pet food. Victoria also has an extensive and indiscriminate aerial baiting program that uses highly poisonous baits that are banned in most other countries, this killing is targeted at Dingos, Australia’s canine species, but has serious and extremely cruel implications for many other endangered species of Australian wildlife.

Despite the vast scale climate impacts, the Victorian Government continues to kill various species, including Kangaroos, in national and state parks, despite the terrible environmental circumstances facing these animals.

These killing programmes on public lands appear to have recommenced in 1991. Between 1998 and 2016 more than 60,000 Kangaroos were killed in the Mallee Parks (at Murray Sunset and Hattah-Kulkyne kill data was not available prior to 2004). Approximately 80 per cent of which were Western Grey Kangaroos, the rest Red Kangaroos (the Red Kangaroo now on the edge of extinction in the state and the species appears entirely missing, because of government actions, from Wyperfeld National Park). The available data appears to show that the number of Kangaroos killed in parks has increased over time as the killing program was expanded to more areas and Red Kangaroos were included in the program. Predator simulation experiments appear to have been conducted on these animals. Prior to 2017, the killing peak appears to have been in 2013 when 8,872 animals were killed (shot and clubbed to death in Victoria’s parks, so called sanctuaries for Australia’s wildlife).

As I write this Victoria is holding its breath to see if this government will announce yet another duck shooting season (it did), in which it appears to have invested many millions of dollars in propping up its much criticised Game Management Authority. They will of course do precisely that, in Victoria it is mates and not votes that count. I will be overjoyed to be wrong because waterbirds in Australia and Victoria are at the end of the road of survival.

The Victorian Government, despite the now denials (it did), is also trying to stop the rescue of animals like Koalas and Kangaroos (specifically uninjured young) from the devastating forest fires. This act is so disgraceful as well as being intensely cruel, it is beyond words. How evil can it get?

So where bats go, we go too

The really stupid idea here is that plants and people can survive without the diverse web of animal life. They can't.

State of play

All species of Flying Fox in Australia are in trouble because of climate change and other major threats. None are 'of least concern'. 

Flying Fox species from Australian territory

  • Grey-headed Flying-fox Pteropus poliocephalus
  • Black Flying-fox Pteropus alecto
  • Spectacled Flying-fox Pteropus conspicillatus - image below
  • Little Red Flying-fox Pteropus scapulatus
  • Large-eared Flying-fox Pteropus macrotissubsp. Epularius – Boigu and Saibai Islands in the Torres Strait (Queensland).
  • Christmas Island Flying-fox Pteropus natalis - Critically endangered and after a long list of extinctions the last remaining native mammal species to survive on Christmas Island.
  • The mysterious Dusky Flying-fox Pteropus brunneus (Queensland) – the species became extinct in the 1800s, little is known about this species (nothing new about that).

Spectacled Flying-fox

Cultural significance

Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (originally published by Longman Paul in Auckland) is Albert Wendt’s collection of short stories from Samoa. These stories describe the unease of a traditional island community caught up in the rapid changes of the modern world. Albert is the reason Andrea and I first visited the Australia Pacific region all those years ago, so to us the Flying Fox has a very significant place in out lives.

During a visit to Western Samoa in the mid 1970s, the impact of the rapid changes occurring in Samoa were obvious and we found the process stressful and difficult to observe, so the disruption of culture from influences from elsewhere and the rapid changes that these things delivered must have been very hard for many Samoans to navigate. It was hard for us and hard, no doubt, for the Flying Foxes too.

Crimes against nature, 8 January 2020

In what is likely to be the most sudden and extreme loss of biodiversity in many millions of years, Australia is burning at vast scale. This has been a high probability for many years. Estimates of animals lost in places where forests still remain are currently around 1.2 billion mammals, birds and reptiles (in just two states of Victoria and New South Wales). Much more is yet to come. There are trillions more plants and other living things, including the precious insect life that sustains us, that have died or will die in these fires.

"This is very dangerous for us all. And I am not talking about the fires, I am talking about the future ability for ecosystems to function. The danger extends far beyond the shores of Australia". Peter Hylands

Given the international attention regarding the suffering of Kangaroos it appears today that the Victorian Government has announced a temporary stop (it lasted a few days before it was overturned) to the commercial culling of Kangaroos for pet food and other products, a victory of sorts, for at least for some of these animals. The non-commercial culling of Kangaroos will however continue, this is disgraceful.

The annual slaughter of waterbirds (albeit modified), as is the case in South Australia, looks as if it is to proceed (it did) at a time when millions of birds are dying in droughts and fires. This is an unbelievable disgrace that we should all remember wherever we are around the world. Disgraceful.

David Bellamy

We dedicate this blog to friend and botanist David Bellamy who died in December 2019. We will all miss him as will the world’s plant life, which he described with such perfection. His conservation efforts in Australia were also significant.