Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tragic stories about bats in Australia have been reported in the news over the last couple of weeks. We spoke to Tiere Thorpe from Sydney Wildlife...
©Sarah Thorpe

By Tiere Thorpe (

Volunteer – Flying Fox rescuer and rehabilitator

The Casino Heat Stress Event – November 2014

©Sarah Thorpe
The small town of Casino is in northern New South Wales. The extreme heatwave saw temperatures soar up to 44C which was deadly for our Black Flying Foxes and Grey Headed Flying Foxes that were roosting there. The timing was simply awful as most mature females had pups under wing, as the birthing season is always late spring (around mid October). These babies are totally dependent on their mother’s milk and as such mothers and babies were the most vulnerable to heat stress. As the heat increased, the flying fox camp became littered with dead bodies. A systematic search through the piles of dead, revealed some live pups still clinging to their dead mums. These have been taken into care by wildlife carers along the Eastern Coast of NSW and in the Sydney basin, deeply haunted by mass death but who care about the life and death of these important yet persecuted species.

Q. How many bats are you currently looking after?

©Sarah Thorpe
Across Sydney, there are over 200 baby flying foxes in care at present. Most of these are from the Casino Heat Stress event. There are also local rescues occurring each week, some orphaned pups and many adults from misadventure into powerlines, backyard fruit netting, and car accidents, chemical poisoning and raptor attacks. With so many flying foxes in our care facilities, it can be hard to keep track of ‘who is who in the zoo’. It’s all about the latest fashion of course.... coloured thumb rings and painted toe nails help us with identification and individual treatment plans.

Q. How do you look after pups in your care?

 Flying fox pups that come into our care are usually hypothermic / hyperthermia, often have a maggot load, some abrasions and are emotionally traumatised.  Many babies have witnessed their mum’s terrifying and often tragic struggle to survive whether it is from entanglement, power line electrical current or hyperthermia from extreme weather events. The first couple of hours in our care is vital and needs to be handled correctly to stabilise the pup and set it on the road to recovery and ultimately release. Hydration is a key aspect to our initial and ongoing care, as is setting up a routine with consistent foster parents. Flying foxes are not lactose intolerant like many mammals. We feed them full cream cow’s milk with added calcium and glucose supplements.
©Sarah Thorpe

At around 6 weeks of age, we introduce fruit to increase the pup’s carbohydrate intake, assist in their growth and to provide enrichment to these smart little guys. Always trying to imitate nature, this is offered late in afternoon and evening to encourage nocturnal behaviour. It would be next to impossible to provide them with a natural diet of nectar, pollen and native fruits. Apples and pears are a mainstay for the pups with the occasional melon and grapes added in for variety. Unfortunately this predominately fruit diet takes up a large proportion of our donations. Australian flying foxes have a largely liquid diet and they have evolved to pulp the fruit between their tongue and rigid palate, extract the juice and discarding the fruit pulp. Aside from addressing the never ending appetite of our little charges, we must clean and sun our pups everyday as mum would in the wild. All this is done in a nurturing bond that forms between the foster parent and the pup. Just like human children, without love these little ones fail to thrive.

©Sarah Thorpe
As foster parents we are always looking to imitate nature, we notice that in the wild young pups (under 4 weeks old) spend almost all their time attached to mums nipple and grasping her body with their little feet.  Staying attached to mum is very important.  As foster parents we provide mumma rolls (imitating mums body) for the pup’s feet to grip and a dummy or pacifier (a substitute nipple). These two simple things considerably reduce stress levels for a pup in our care, helping them feel safe and secure.

A busy 12 weeks will pass quickly and our pups will be weaned off milk and onto fruit and ready for the next stage of rehabilitation – crèche. This is where we provide the right environment amongst other flying foxes minus our emotional involvement. Hopefully by this stage our pups are becoming emotional independent and confident. They will spend a few weeks with other like-minded, self assured pups as human contact begins to withdraw and their innate behaviours emerge – washing and toileting themselves, socialising and nocturnal food seeking behaviours. This is the time when our volunteers work extremely hard, chopping copious amounts of fruit to fill little growing bellies (up to 400g per night per bat).

©Sarah Thorpe

Q. What are the chances of young orphaned bats survival once they are released?

©Sarah Thorpe
The timing of release of our hand-reared orphans is critical to their survival and integration into the wild colony and fortunately based on science.  A three year tracking study of hand-reared orphans released at the Gordon release facility in Sydney was published by Augee & Ford in 1999. This provides guidelines for a successful release and integration into the wild flying fox colony. Another observation made was that in early February the older wild males are seen taking the youngster out of the camp in the early evening to teach foraging and navigational skills. Our aim is always to get our youngster out into the colony to coincide with these brief but necessary excursions.  With our release protocols based on the above study, our hand-raised pups have a very high chance of survival.

M.L Augee and Denise Ford (1999) Radio-tracking Studies of Grey-headed Flying-foxes, Pteropus poliocephalus, from the Gordon Colony, Sydney.

Q. Apart from the current heat wave what other challenges do bats in Australia face?

There are many factors forcing our flying foxes to become increasingly urbanised, placing them in zones of conflict and terror as they attempt to co-exist with humans.
Evidence makes it very clear that our flying foxes preferred diet is myrtaceae flowers and forest fruit. However, with the increasing clearing of native vegetation and the replacement with commercial crops, we now see increased conflict between farmers and flying foxes. Despite the fact that our flying foxes provide an amazing free ecosystem service, recent political and legal changes (2012) have reduced protection for these vulnerable species. The Queensland and NSW Governments have reintroduced shooting permits allowing orchardist to inhumanly cull these animals.
Habitat clearance also has another effect – it increases the distance between native food sources and hems in flying fox populations, forcing them to look for other food sources locally. We have seen this recently in Sydney, just before spring flowering. We had many rescued flying foxes suffering from starvation, especially pregnant females, juveniles and the elderly who have lower fat reserves and the inability to fly greater distances.
Local governments also have power to disperse flying fox colonies and destroy their roost sites without assessment or accountability. These regular dispersals are undertaken using sound, smoke, helicopters and any stress-inducing method to unsettle the flying foxes from their habitat trees. The dispersal procedure is ongoing and expensive and despite research showing it is an unsuccessful short or long term control mechanism – sadly it is still used!

Q. How can members of the public help with the current tragedy?

Donations are always very welcome. Sydney Wildlife does not receive any funding from the government. We rely solely on donations from members of the public and the generosity of our wildlife volunteers who are all unpaid. Our flying fox rehabilitation is a costly process, requiring an ongoing commitment from a small but dedicated group of bat carers within the organisation. The current Heat Stress victims from Casino have many injuries including ongoing hydration issues, organ damage, skin abrasions, eye ulcers and wing membrane damage. Any financial assistance given to the flying foxes always goes straight to their daily care and medical expenses.
©Sarah Thorpe

We are able to take heat stress donations via the Tolga bat hospital

We are also listed on the Global Giving website ( ‘Help Baby Bats Take Flight’) where there is a regular update for those who donate and become part of our commitment to help this vulnerable species.

Be a flying fox advocate – educate members of the public about the importance of flying foxes as keystone species: no other animal does their job; in fact the survival of many animals relies on flying foxes to do their job each night. They are long range pollinators and seed disperser of many Australian coastal trees and these gentle night workers are absolutely essential to the health of our ecosystems and forests (as well as being incredibly cute and smart J). At the current rate of die-offs, we may sadly witness this species becoming functionally extinct in our generation. Functional extinction always precedes actual extinction.

©Sarah Thorpe