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By David Westcott, Stream Leader & Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

The recent debate about the management of flying-foxes in Cairns set me to wondering about the history of their interaction with Europeans in the Far North.  Cairns’ old newspapers, the Cairns Morning Post, The Morning Post, and the Cairns Post from the period 1884 to 1954 are a relatively quick means of getting a glimpse into this. It turns out flying-foxes have been media stars in FNQ for over a century now.

Black Flying Foxes in Ingham, QLD
Photo: David Westcott

From 1889 onwards reports of flying-fox damage to crops were a regular newspaper feature along with reports of growers’ insistence that flying-fox depredation would send the industry to the wall.  There were frequent demands for Local Council and Government support for control activities, only some of which were acceded to. In the mid-1920s the Cairns Post reported that despite having operated for many years, the Flying-fox Destruction Boards had conceded defeat and requested that the Commonwealth begin research on how to control the animals.  This request led to the funding of the first flying-fox research project, conducted by Francis Ratcliffe, and some years later his visit to the region and his final reports were the focus of much detailed reporting.

In the very early days flying-foxes in the settlements of Far North Queensland themselves don’t appear to have warranted much mention. Their presence was indicated by grumblings about their visits to garden fruit trees and mention of their flights at night in articles, letters and columns. There is also indirect evidence; for example, in 1901 a fire in Mossman was reported to have disturbed the flying-fox roost in the town.  Other articles suggest that flying-fox shooting was common in towns.  For example, a number of reports of injury to persons give the context as being shot or otherwise injured while shooting flying-foxes.  Similarly, a suicide was initially missed because the wife assumed her husband was shooting flying-foxes, not himself. In a legal altercation in Babinda the recent use of a weapon was explained as due not to homicidal urges but rather to flying-fox shooting.

From the end of the First World War specific mention of organised shooting of flying-foxes in towns to disperse them becomes more common.  Shoots were reported in Charters Towers in 1916 and 1927 and 1935 (in that event a “respectable number” of flying-foxes were shot and four humans “peppered”).In 1932 flying-fox shooting at Tolga Scrub, a nature sanctuary, had reached a point that it was considered a public safety issue and the police became involved. Shoots were also reported at Midgenoo and Mareeba in 1937 and in Cooktown in 1939 and 1940 (despite this the flying-fox camp was reported to be within feet of Cooktown’s post-office in 1946).  In 1941 it was reported that an application to hold a shoot at the camp in Mirriwinni was refused by the Council and in April 1953 Douglas Shire Council declined to supply ammunition for a shoot in Pt Douglas.

While shooting was the traditional means for getting back at flying-foxes, the new technologies developed during the war years caught the attention of those wanting to be rid of flying-foxes.  In 1917 chlorine gas and flamethrowers were suggested.  From 1945 through to the 1950s requests to the military for assistance in moving camps, including those in towns, included bombs, aerial bombing and strafing, and napalm.  In 1946 the Army, responding to a request from Eacham Shire Council for high-pressure flamethrowers, deemed “…such a tool was not safe for an ordinary worker…”

In Cairns itself a “severe visitation” in the town was reported in 1915.  A camp at the mouth of the Barron was mentioned in February 1920 while in October 1935 thousands of flying-foxes were reported roosting in the city.  In April 1944 flying-foxes are reported at the corner of Pease and Anderson Streets but in April 1948 the Cairns Post’s column “Nature Notes” reported, “In bygone years some large camps of flying foxes existed in the vicinity of Cairns- several such camps were located in the mangroves of the Cairns Inlet, Barron River and other places, but in recent times these camps appear to have been abandoned.”  This was but temporary, for in September of 1952 the Mayor of Cairns was reported as ruling out the use of napalm against the flying-foxes in the city centre, at Alligator Ck in the south and Charles St in the north.  He opted instead for mangrove reclamation, plans for which were completed in 1954, when the flying-fox numbers had halved and they had “…moved from their usual haunts in the mangrove swamps surrounding Cairns.”

Much of what appears in these old newspapers is very familiar from our recent debates about flying-fox management in the towns of FNQ and serves to highlight that despite implementing extreme measures repeatedly over the last century we have yet to find a long-term solution to learning to live with them.  It is clear that as a community we need to start thinking very differently about solutions and mitigation.