Partnership Rewilding With Flying-Foxes

Thanks to a conversation with my friend the environmental humanities film-maker/director Rob Nugent, I have become entranced with ideas of how we humans can work with flying-foxes rather than against them. Human-animal alliances that work toward greater integrity of ecosystems are, I propose, forms of ‘partnership rewilding’.

Sociable little reds,  photo:  Ashleigh Johnson
Sociable little reds,
photo: Ashleigh Johnson

‘Little reds’ (Pteropus scapulatus) are one of the four flying-fox (mega-bat) species in Australia, and they’ve been the focus of a lot of public talk and action recently. On the positive side was the enticing announcement of the arrival of little reds in Brisbane for the flowering of the bloodwood trees. I couldn’t get away from home in January, and so had to settle for a very short video clip and delightful write-up of the ‘wildlife spectacular on a world scale’ posted by the Bat Rescue and Conservation group in Brisbane (view here).

Further north in the Atherton Tableland town of Herberton, residents were complaining about little reds and calling for them to be removed. Apparently the mob arrived in late November and camped along the Wild River. One person in the know wrote recently: ‘The trees are literally flattened and the bats are still camping in them. About half have left in the last week’.

The Herberton story re-entered my imagination last week at the environmental humanities conference here in Sydney. The snappy title was ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, and in the midst of an extremely lively program, it was great to catch up with Rob Nugent. His first film in the area of human-animal interactions focussed on locusts – their strange, beautiful, ‘Biblical’ and in many ways disastrous lives. ‘Memoirs of a plague’ is filmed across Africa and Australia and tells beautiful and disturbing stories about human-animal relationships.

Rob had recently been in Herberton and had filmed the little reds. I am so grateful to be able to get a glimpse of a big mob of ‘little reds’ in situ (view here). In Rob’s words:

“I particularly like the idea that they had decided to camp on a river called ‘Wild’… I suppose the river was named after someone called Wild, but perhaps it was named for its “wildness” too. The vegetation on the river was probably stripped for tin mining and is now regrowth…. In any case the bats are doing their best to “rewild” it by gradually breaking it up and pulling it to bits. I don’t think they are killing the trees though they will take a bit to recover. As it’s such a high rainfall area it’s unlikely that the bats’ superficially dramatic impact on the trees, sculpting roost sites to hang out together, branches being bent and broken under their collective weight etc., will last very long at all.”

Rob’s wry comment about rewilding the Wild River is partly tongue-in-cheek, but also wonderfully provocative.

Little reds characteristically love to hang together in tightly packed groups. According to the bat experts Les Hall and Greg Richards, ‘their habit of forming dense clusters, with up to 30 bats hanging together from one small branch, often results in the branch breaking. The combined weight of many such clusters will cause even large branches to break…. The resulting effect of a camp of little reds on a patch of vegetation is somewhat akin to the damage done by a severe hail or wind storm.’ It would seem that the trees where flying-foxes camp get a large influx of organic nutrients along with all the ‘pruning’, but it is still difficult to imagine the scene when a million or more little reds gather together in one place. As Hall and Richards point out, ‘fortunately these large camps of little reds are mobile, and move on when the local flowering ceases.’ Increasingly, as land clearing reduces their options, they may return before a camp has had time fully to recover.

Little reds in Boonah, Qld Photo: Paisley Hadley
Little reds in Boonah, Qld
Photo: Paislie Hadley

In 2000 Hall and Richards wrote that little reds had not normally lived in the Atherton Tableland, but were coming more frequently. Their arrival has truly upset people in this area as well as in inland towns such as Charters Towers where the recent disastrous cruelty is well documented. I will never condone that cruelty, but what strikes me in this context is the fact that here humans and trees share a perspective when it comes to little reds. For both species (humans and trees) the big question is: when will they leave?!!!

The answer, of course, is ‘when they have somewhere to go’. Little reds are the most nomadic of all the flying-foxes of Australia. Their range overlaps with the others, but goes further inland, bringing flying-foxes deep into the arid zone of Central Australia.

They are the odd group out amongst the Pteropids of Australia. Little reds are smaller, with a different colour and smell; they breed at the opposite time of year to the rest of the three main species; they are more reliant than the others on blossoms and nectar, and thus are almost exclusively nectivorous. Their large groups and greater mobility are responses to the focus on nectar.

The lure of the Atherton Tableland is likely to be related to the failure of the blossoming trees further inland, a factor that is influenced by climate and weather. However, Hall and Richards also note that ‘continued wide-spread clearing in central Queensland has removed trees which were major winter and spring food sources for little reds.’ As a result, large numbers of creatures were starving, and were looking for alternative places and alternative foods. Since 2000, land clearing has continued, and (surprise) the Newman government has recently altered legislation to make it easier for land owners to clear fell. One figure of the many that could be offered demonstrates the impacts of land clearing: for every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress.

Queensland cattle country
Queensland cattle country

As habitat destruction and persecution go hand in hand with starvation and heat stress, it sometimes seems the odds are stacked against flying-foxes. Every time I hear calls for expulsion, dispersal, eradication, war on bats, and other violence, I have to do a double-take and remind myself that in spite of all the propaganda, there are actually many creatures for whom the future of flying-foxes really matters. That’s in addition to the creatures themselves who, in their determination to find their food, survive heatwaves, and raise their young, clearly care deeply about their future.

We need to step away from the hype of hate to get a wider perspective on how flying-foxes are appreciated by many creatures. It is probably fair to say that the predators who get an occasional mouthful of little reds and other flying-foxes appreciate these creatures. Crocodiles, powerful owls, pythons and perhaps an occasional lucky large raptor that finds a flying-fox getting about by day, all get a benefit from flying-foxes. This tooth and talon (or crush ‘n’ gulp) kind of benefit ensures that for hungry predators flying-foxes are indeed a pleasure.

Little red with blossoms Photo: Helen Gormley
Little red with blossoms
Photo: Helen Gormley

Undoubtedly trees are the greatest ‘fans’ of flying-foxes. Many of the trees they visit, lap upon, and pollinate require out-crossing for best pollination. This means they need to be pollinated with more distant trees, not just with themselves and their immediate neighbours. Little reds are the pollinators par excellence of the inland arid-zone trees. A study of little reds showed that 95% of the time they range beyond ten metres from where they start their evening meal. In contrast, 80% of birds remain within a ten metre range of where they start their meal. In the arid regions of scattered eucalypts, corymbias and other native flowering trees, little reds ensure that the future of these trees will be adaptive and flexible. In this time of rapid ecological change, that capacity for adaptive and flexible response, especially for long-lived creatures such as trees, is especially important.

Among the many beautiful Myrtaceous trees, the inland bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) and desert bloodwood (Corymbia opaca) have a range pretty much identical to the inland range of little reds. Both thrive best with outcrossed pollination. From the perspective of bloodwoods, flying-foxes are the generous nomads who take their pollen from tree to tree across these inland regions.  Their work holds whole life-worlds together, for trees do not live in isolation. As I learned through my ethnobiological work in the Northern Territory, the future of the trees is entwined with the lives and future generations of many other creatures, creating a shimmering tapestry of life sustained by flying foxes.

Birds and butterflies live amongst the bloodwood, and so in some sense are entwined with them, and thus with flying-foxes. Native bees positively adore making their homes in bloodwood hollows, as well as feeding on the pollen, and so they too are entwined. Bloodwood ‘apples’ are the growths that result when an insect lays eggs in the bloodwood bark. The gall of the desert bloodwood is said by those who know to taste rather like coconut.

‘Sugarleaf’ is a sweet crust called ‘lerp’ that forms on bloodwood trees and a few others. Shaken off, formed into cakes, and stored for ceremony, ‘sugarleaf’ was once an extremely important food for Aboriginal people. Lerp is part of the life cycle of a set of insects, and sugarleaf is eaten by a range of other creatures: birds such as honeyeaters, parrots, and willy-wagtails along with lizards and others.

Corymbia terminalis
Corymbia terminalis

For humans, bloodwoods also offer a good wood for firewood and for tools; the ashes are good for use with chewing tobacco; in the arid regions, some bloodwoods hold water in their hollows and have saved peoples’ lives. Many of the first cattle yards were made with bloodwood posts.

Orchids love to grow in protected corners of bloodwood trees, and centipedes lurk (if that is a fair term) in orchids. Mistletoe, too, thrives happily in bloodwood trees. Where mistletoe lives, the mutualist mistletoe birds also live. Along with mistletoe birds, others such as painted honeyeaters, a species threatened by land clearing, are reliant on mistletoe. Children too chew on mistletoe berries. And where mistletoe thrives, small mammals such as possums also tend to thrive.

Who cares about flying-foxes? The chorus of bloodwoods and those who live in, on, and with them, has many voices. Taken together with the many other trees such as river red gums, coolabahs and paperbarks, it becomes a symphony of praise for the pollinators, and for all the blessings that flow from them. Its two-part chorus comprises joy in the present with a call for health, vitality, and connectivities in the future.

This call inspires me to imagine a program of partnership rewilding. The term ‘rewilding’ has come into use in recent years. It carries with it all the problems of what we may mean by wild, but it is useful in our struggle to find language equal to the issues we face. It isn’t fully appropriate to talk about ecological restoration anymore – there are too many questions about what makes an appropriate baseline, and who is included or excluded. Equally, in Australia a lot of restoration work is all about killing, as Thom van Dooren discusses in his great article on this subject. And, too, there is much uncertainty about the future in this time of climate change. Restoring ecosystems to a past state may not be what is needed for the future. Increasingly, scientists talk about resilience, and increasingly everyone realises that for the foreseeable future humans and animals are going to be living in ever more cheek-by-jowl proximity.

Flying-fox flyout, Sydney
Flying-fox flyout, Sydney

The two big ideas of rewilding are to protect and connect natural processes (core areas and connecting corridors), and to protect or re-introduce keystone species and apex predators. Little reds and other flying-foxes are keystone species because of their pollination work, and the benefits they bring to eco-systems cascade across a huge range of other species.

My not-so-modest proposal is that we humans start to understand ourselves as mutualists. In partnership with flying-foxes, we could work to facilitate the great nomadic blossom-chasing way of life, and all the gifts it brings to creatures great and small.

This program would reverse the long history of land clearance, and would be designed to enable flying-foxes to continue their beneficial work. There would be extensive corridors with a well-planned succession of flowers, catering particularly for the most difficult times of year. Rewilding corridors would draw flying-foxes away from urban centres, helping them live the life they are evolved to live, and sustaining the integrity of Australian ecosystems. Rather than we humans trying to drive flying-foxes away by injuring them, partnership rewilding would entice them back into the bush where everyone benefits.

There are many other gains. Trees reduce local temperatures, and would make a real difference in this heatwave era; trees sequester carbon, and the renewal of the bush reduces our carbon footprint, just as land clearing exacerbates that footprint.

The ethical beauty of partnership rewilding is that it inspires us humans work with others.

It allows us to acknowledge the great work others do to keep life flourishing, and to assist in that work. It puts humans in their place as part of the community of life rather than as dominators, as Aldo Leopold was proposing so many years ago. Partnership rewilding fulfils in every way Leopold’s great dictum: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

 

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

This is the first of a series of essays on Partnership Rewilding.

Resources

Leslie Hall & Greg Richards, 2000, Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, UNSW Press.

Aldo Leopold, 1949, ‘Land ethic’ in Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press.

Figures on bird deaths in land clearing come from an article by Bush Heritage Australia.

I got some home video footage of a massive fly-out in the Northern Territory last year (view here).

 

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