Life in the air
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Life in the air
The Spectacled Flying-fox, Pteropus conspicillatus, also called the Spectacled Fruit-bat. There are two subspecies Pteropus conspicillatus conspicillatus (Australia and South-Eastern New Guinea) and Pteropus conspicillatus chrysauchen (North-Western New Guinea and nearby islands).
One special thing we wanted to do when we first visited the Asia Pacific, many decades ago now, was to meet the region’s Flying Fox species.
We wrote this story from North Queensland, Australia, which is a home to the Spectacled Flying-fox, a species of Flying Fox adapted to life in the rainforest. Significant areas of the rainforest in North Queensland have been destroyed. The reasons for this are many and include the way we measure the value of nature, agricultural of various kinds and urban development.
This means that the Flying Fox's habitat is ever shrinking.
What has followed since we wrote this story a decade ago, what has been done to the Spectacled Flying-fox, by both local and state government in Queensland, is appalling. What has occurred in Cairns is particularly disgraceful.
Despite the endless warnings, Spectacled Flying-fox populations have plunged.
The Spectacled Flying-fox story describes how native species in Australia are allowed to decline until they reach a point at which the circumstances for the species cannot be ignored.
“The Spectacled Flying-fox was listed as Vulnerable under the EPBC Act in 2002. Following a formal review of the listing status of the species, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (the Committee) has determined that there is sufficient evidence to support a change of status of the species under the EPBC Act from Vulnerable to Endangered”. Commonwealth Government of Australia
“Historic decline was associated particularly with habitat loss and persecution. These impacts have now lessened (Peter comment NO), in part because of protection afforded due to national threatened species listing. However, although much of the species’ range occurs within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area where it is protected from many threats, key foraging resources are found outside the World Heritage Area in agricultural land, where clearing and persecution at orchards still occur (Woinarski et al., 2014). Monitoring by Westcott and McKeown (2014) from 2004 to 2014 showed an increasing population shift towards urban areas, which may result in a future increase in human and flying-fox conflicts. A subsequent publication (Tait et al., 2014) showed that there has been an increase in the proportion of urban camps and an increase in the proportion of the population using urban camps over this time period. This increase is not associated with the loss of non-urban camps or habitat”.
Populations were not helped by the mass execution of Flying Foxes (up to 500 each night) by the use of electrical grids by some landholders. This practice was banned in 2001 because of the horrendous cruelty being dished out to these animals and a subsequent ban by the Federal Court. In recent times more extreme elements of the government have not ruled out reversing the ban. At the time of writing in 2015, the grids remain so we are uncertain as to adequacy relating to the supervision of the ban.
“The Minister approved this conservation advice on and transferred this species from the Vulnerable to Endangered category, effective from 22 February 2019”.
Following mass die off events from heat stress in Queensland in late 2018, the Commonwealth Government finally did something:
“After 18 months of pointless delays by her predecessor Josh Frydenberg, Minister Price has finally given Spectacled Flying-foxes the endangered listing they have been in desperate need of,” said HSI’s head of programs, Evan Quartermain (Guardian Australia).
We learn two things here, firstly the endangered listing, given what has happened subsequent to listing, appears to mean little in Queensland. We can tell a similar story in relation to the impacts on species from climate change and there continues to be little appetite for change of behaviour.
The increasing urbanisation, a common theme for Australian species as habitat is destroyed, is one of the key threats now facing the Spectacled Flying-fox. The conduct in Cairns describes this perfectly as Spectacled Flying-foxes were harassed to make them set up camps in other locations, in this case harassed by such things as the use of directional sound-emitting devices, metal clangers and low-pressure water jets.
“Cairns Regional Council's plan to disperse thousands of bats from the city won't work and will put extra pressure on a colony still recovering from mass die-offs in 2018, environmental groups have said”. ABC May 2020
When we first wrote this story (now with updates) the Spectacled Flying Fox was listed in Australia as vulnerable. One of Australia’s Flying Fox species, the Christmas Island Flying Fox, was already critically endangered, another Queensland species, the Dusky Flying Fox is extinct, with other species, due to habitat loss, climate change and government permitted culling programs, in decline. Heat stress has been a major threat to Flying Foxes, dying on mass in their camps.
There is no particular safe haven for Flying Foxes in Australia as they face propaganda from a number of politicians who see a vote in their destruction. These individuals exist in all levels of Australian Governments. These attitudes apply particularly, but not only, in Queensland and New South Wales, where animosity towards the Grey-Headed Flying-Fox (listed as vulnerable) continues to intensify.
While some species of Australian Flying Foxes, such as the Little Red Flying-fox, which is also being displaced from its habitats, and the Grey-Headed Flying-fox are more mobile in terms of possible habitat migration, the Spectacled Flying-fox is restricted to rainforest areas and close surrounds and is likely to be even more vulnerable to the various threats facing all Flying Foxes.
Flying Foxes live in colonies known as camps and forage for food during the night, the spectacular dusk departures of Flying Foxes from their daytime roosts or camps have been a feature of the tropical night sky for millions of years.
Because of daytime roosting patterns, Flying Foxes are very vulnerable to climate change and heat events and mass die offs of colonies are occurring in Australian states such as Victoria and New South Wales because of heat stress.
Flying Foxes of all ages are impacted. In the tropical north more intense cyclones are also a growing threat to populations of these animals.
Flying Foxes have always had a place in the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, as totems to some, as a food source to others and always deeply connected to the mythologies of these peoples.
Today, Flying Foxes are part of the growing list of Australia’s wildlife species that are not wanted or tolerated. It is now time to change this story and to accept these animals exist and to live with them in acceptance and harmony. If we do change, we will come to learn that their loss will also become our loss, a loss that our own species can ill afford.
In 2015, the Australian bat wars, as we call them, had taken on an interesting dimension in the North Queensland city of Cairns where its regional council, was trying to remove Spectacled Flying-fox camp sites around the Cairns library and adjacent areas. Once a draw card for tourists (including us many decades ago) where the historic and very large trees, and their Flying Fox colonies, had been a wonderful feature of the city’s tropical status in the natural world.
"The council bat tree saga will roll into a third year after plans for a November trial were abandoned because the Environment Department is still preparing its case. The department took the Cairns Regional Council to court after the council refused to pay fines imposed for allegedly non-compliant trimming of Flying Fox habitat in the CBD last year." Cairns Post, 5 October 2015
In an attempt to rid the city of the Spectacled Flying-fox, these historic trees have now been hacked to remove major branches to stop the Flying Foxes roosting in these camps. What now appears to have happened is that the Flying Foxes have been dispersed and are appearing in trees where they did not occur before. Attitudes towards Australia’s wildlife in Cairn’s are not positive, strange given this is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and tourism is a major industry.
We note that, in yet another set of Queensland mixed metaphors, some native species are proudly displayed on the side of the city's rubbish bins (which are great bits of design). If only the living counterparts were given equal respect.
As for our Spectacled Flying-fox, its numbers have declined significantly. Population estimates from 1985 suggest that the total population was around 820,000, by 2015 it was below 200,000 and in 2022 the population is more likely to be in the region of 80,000 individuals.
Smaller colonies of the Spectacled Flying-fox means an empty tropical dusk sky
The fact that Australian Governments are still persecuting endangered, threatened and vulnerable species is both depressing and disgraceful.
Educating people in Australia about the very special wildlife that live on the unique continent that is Australia, with all its wonderful plants and animals, is going to have to be a priority if many of these species are to survive in to the future.
CULTURE NOTE: 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 we first visited the Pacific region all those years ago so to us the Flying Fox has a very significant place in our lives. During our visit to Western Samoa in the mid nineteen seventies, 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 cultural influences from elsewhere and the rapid changes these things delivered must have been very hard for many of the islanders to navigate.