“Anyone that would put the welfare of a flying fox above that of a human being is sick in the head.” Bob Katter (1945-Present) “Anyone that would put the welfare of a politician above that of a human being is sick in the head.” Most Reasonable Australians (1901-Present)
My daughter and I were recently in Cairns Australia, waiting to board a dive boat for a four-day tour of the Great Barrier Reef. We had a morning to kill, so we decided to do a city walkabout to just see what we could see. Cairns has a beautiful waterfront esplanade and is basically a tourist center – so the downtown is a conglomerate of cafes, souvenir shops and tour offices. After walking for about a half an hour, we started hearing what sounded like the screech of tropical birds and decided to follow it. The dull roar brought us right to the city library which is surrounded on two sides by huge trees with sprawling canopies. As we started peering through them to see what type of bird we were hearing, we were surprised to see hundreds, if not thousands of huge bats hanging upside-down from the branches, staring back at us. These were the famous Flying Foxes of Cairns, which are graceful creatures with maned fox-like torsos and your typical bat body, but on a much larger scale. They were fanning themselves with their partially folded wings in the summer heat and chattering to each other. We came back at dusk the following day to watch them fly off to feed on fruit and nectar (they are herbivores and do not eat insects like other bats) for the evening. As it got darker, the chattering increased and many started to crawl along the branches with their hook-like claws, squabbling over their particular roosting site or grooming each other. Other birds such as White Ibis were perched on the very crowns of these same trees and a few doves fluttered among the branches, both of which seemed to be enjoying the nightly activity. With the diminished light, great numbers of the Flying Foxes set off in flight, heading towards the bay or surrounding mountains. Even though we left before they had all flown away, I was still impressed with this display of indigenous wildlife thriving in the heart of an urban centre. About a week later while visiting the surrounding tropical rainforests, we took the time to visit the Flying Fox Rescue in Kuranda – what I learned there was a real opener. The Flying Foxes sent here are usually injured or orphaned through human contact such as vehicle impacts, barbed-wire fencing and the shotgun blasts of less than enthusiastic fruit farmers – but there are also natural diseases, such as paralysis tick. Most can be rehabilitated with antibiotics, rest and a healthy diet, after which they are released back into the wild. A select few have been injured too extensively for release and these become the permanent residents or ambassadors of the Flying Fox Rescue. When we arrived a volunteer was holding one such resident upside-down in her hands in front of a large outdoor cage housing dozens of females. These were being enticed by a large male named Rupert, who was trying to impress eligible mates with an eclectic display of wing flapping and high pitched calls. Another female Flying Fox, a black-maned species, was climbing around on a small potted bonsai tree on a nearby table and was obviously playing. When she saw all the caressing and snacks the handler’s female was receiving, she started vying for her attention – I was understandably impressed. These amazing animals are smarter than dogs, respond to names, enjoy play fighting with their handlers, are capable of problem solving and well deserving of a place in this world with the rest of us. Which brings us to Bob Katter – independent Australian MP, leader of the Australian Party, farming advocate and sworn enemy of each and every Flying Fox on the continent. On the guise of a potential apocalyptic plague (Hendra virus, which can infect people through horses) and three confirmed fatalities, he has proposed a species-wide cull (and some believe extermination) of Flying Foxes. All of the Australians I talked to felt that the real impetus behind his environmental holocaust were a few irate orchardists trying to protect their Mango crops from the occasional midnight raid by our furry friends. But in a country where dogs kill more people than Hendra virus, does it really make sense to eradicate entire species (after all, he’s not calling for a dog cull) of pollinators and seed dispersers that have evolved with and are essential to the long term viability of the rainforest ecosystem. According to Bob Katter, it does – however, the rest of us would beg to differ!