Everything you need to know about the Cairns Spectacled Flying Fox (fruit bat) colonies.
Please note this article was published in 2014 and as such some of the information is outdated (eg. conservation status) but gives a good overview of the species.
Spectacled Flying-foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) are large fruit bats, famous for the straw-coloured fur which surrounds their eyes like spectacles. They are nocturnal mammals which feed on nectar and fruit during the night and roost in trees during the day and are very social animals that live in colonies and roost in trees together; these trees are referred to as camps. Spectacled flying-foxes are a significant species to the region. They are found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia. In Australia, the spectacled flying-fox habitat is limited along a narrow coastal belt of the Wet Tropics and Cape York areas in Far North Queensland[i], [ii].
Why are they important?
- Spectacled Flying-foxes keep our World Heritage Wet Tropics forests healthy by spreading seeds and pollinating trees
- They contribute both directly and indirectly to our ecotourism industry and can help to grow our local economy
The Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia is one of the very few World Heritage Areas which encompasses both ecological and cultural importance. It is a biodiversity hotspot and a key tourism draw card to the region. Just as we are relying on the Wet Tropics for jobs, the Wet Tropics relies flying-foxes. Many people are unaware of just how important flying-foxes are to a variety of tree species. Their diet consists of fruit and nectar and therefore we rely on this species to spread seeds and pollinate trees. The trees require this method of seed and pollen distribution to maintain the health of the ecosystem and rainforest biodiversity.
Our wet tropics strongly supports the regional economy, in 2007 a study was undertaken, assessing that the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area had an estimated contribution of $426 million to the region per annum[i]. Without the presence of flying-foxes, the health of our rainforests can decline, consequently affecting the tourism industry.
[i] Prideaux, B & Falco-Mammone, F 2007, Economic Values of Tourism in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management, James Cook University, Cairns.
How are they doing?
- CSIRO estimates that the population has declined up to 60% over the last decade
- Decline is caused by various human and environmental impacts
- Environmental threats include: cyclones, tick paralysis, competition, temperature related stresses and diseases such as cleft palate syndrome.
- Human threats are: habitat loss, inappropriate netting practices, man-made obstacles (barbed wire fences and electrical lines) and human harassment
A recent spectacled flying-fox monitoring report was published by the National Environmental Research Program which illustrates that the population has decreased 4-6% annually over the past decade[iv]. Other reports indicate a trend that flying-foxes are now moving into urbanised areasii.
Declines can result from environmental threats such as: cyclones, tick paralysis, competition and temperature related stresses[v]. Diseases have also affected the species, with numbers of Cleft palate syndrome cases. Many flying-foxes are rescued by wildlife carers and bat hospitals when found injured, abandoned or struggling in the environment. However, there are also a number of human activities which are threatening the species, such as: habitat loss, inappropriate netting practices, man-made obstacles (electricity lines and barbed wire fences) and human harassmentv. Human harassment is one of heated and controversial issues regarding flying-foxes.
As flying-foxes are nocturnal and very social animals, they roost in trees during the day in colonies[vi]. When a colony frequently roost in the same particular trees, these trees are referred to as camps. In the Cairns CBD, there are 2 Nationally Important Camps; one is located at the Cairns Central Swamp, and the other on Abbott and Aplin Street[vii].
Spectacled flying-fox Conservation Status
- Spectacled flying-foxes are listed as Vulnerable under National Environmental Law (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) in 2002, but still not listed under Queensland Environmental Law (Nature Conservation Act 1992).
Prior to the listing of the spectacled flying-foxes as Vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) in 2002, the species had experienced a steep decline in the population. The World Heritage status of the Wet Tropics area was the key to the prioritisation of the spectacled flying-fox becoming protected at the national level, as the worth of the species was proven to encompass the values of the site. Without the recognition of the threatened status by the EPBC Act, species do not receive any conservation priorities, however, once they are listed the Government is then obliged to improve protective legislation and develop recovery plans[viii]. Currently in place is the National Recovery Plan for the Spectacled Flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) which was produced in 2010 by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. The objectives of the recovery plan are to ensure the long-term protection of the species through a reduction of threats to their survival and to improve the scientific understanding of spectacled flying-foxes to guide recovery[ix], vi.
Regardless of the international and national obligations to the protection of the spectacled flying-fox, the state of Queensland is yet to list the species as threatened under the relevant Nature Conservation Act. The NCA only provides general restrictions under section 88C regarding the impact and moving of roosts belonging to the genus Pteropus (all flying-foxes)ix, vi. In the past, local governments were required to apply to the Federal Government to gain approval and a permit to manage flying-fox roosting sites, however under the Newman government in 2013, local councils were granted authority to manage the roosts. This is only permitted if the relevant codes of practice are abided by, with the best scenario of management falling in line with the aims and restrictions of the National Recovery Plan for the Spectacled Flying-foxix.
Inconsistencies within state law include the fact that State departments are producing national recovery plans, however the NCA is still yet to list the species as vulnerable, even though the species meets the state criteria of vulnerability, where[x]:
- its population is decreasing because of threatening processes, or
- its population has been seriously depleted and its protection is not secured, or
- its population, while abundant, is at risk because of threatening processes, or
- its population is low or localised or depends on limited habitat that is at risk because of threatening processes.
The spectacled flying-fox can become listed if the Governor in Council amends the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulations 2006 if the criteria have been metx.
What are the local challenges in Cairns?
- Cairns has two Nationally Important Camps; CBD and Cairns Central Swamp
- Human interference with flying-foxes have put these camps in danger and some roost trees have been removed from the Cairns CBD
Due to changes in political direction in 2013, numerous laws were amended, which loosened the reins on flying-fox roost tree management in Queensland. In May 2014 the Cairns Regional Council began a tree trimming event on the roost trees surrounding the City Library. This was an attempt to move the colony presented as a reaction to complaints regarding their noise and faecal pollution. While doing this, witnesses say the council breached a roost management Code of Practice when they trimmed trees in which flying-foxes were still present. Public outcry and protests have led to the council facing court proceedings. Since then, the Novotel Oasis Resort applied to completely remove 11 flying-fox roost trees from their property. The submissions were approved this year and the tree removal began on the 1st of May. This month (May 2015), the Novotel has removed a number of trees from its premises leaving hundreds of returned flying-foxes cramped in remaining roost trees.
Although there is a national recovery plan and the species is listed as vulnerable, the tree removal was still approved by the local council, state, and national government, even though the flying-fox camps are clearly recognized as nationally important. Local governments must look into including flying-foxes into city plans. Solutions which provide positive outcomes for both flying-foxes and local residents should be heavily implemented. This can showcase Cairns even more, as an environmentally outstanding city if they create a nature refuge for the species. This can be beneficial as an educational and tourism attraction.
Due to the world heritage status of the Wet Tropics, the flying-foxes have been recognised as a nationally significant species. Following the Booth v Bosworth  case, which was against the electrocution of masses of flying-foxes which flew in and out of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area to feed, the species was declared Vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2002 (EPBC Act)v. The spectacled flying-foxes are protected under Commonwealth legislative powers, however they are not recognised or protected under Queensland environmental legislation; the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (NCA)ix. Section 88C of the NCA only refers to the management of flying-fox roosting sites and identifies the need for local Government to obtain permits when considering the management of the sitesix, [xi].
With consideration of the recent 6% decline in the spectacled flying-fox population per annum since 2004 and that the species was declared vulnerable in 2002, even with the introduced legislation and relevant policy tools, declines in the species are still occurringiv. Flying-fox populations have increasingly been moving into urban environments, and coupled with their decline, the need to appropriately and adequately protect the species becomes all the more imperativeii, iv. The proximity of the flying-fox roosting camps to humans has been causing conflicts of interest between residents, business owners, tourists and conservationists. Throughout Far North Queensland, Nationally Important Camps have been declared in order to protect flying-fox roosting trees by the Australian Governmentvii. The Cairns CBD colony is one of the declared Nationally Important Camps for the roosting flying-fox colonies which has been under stress from conflicting stakeholder activities.
What will the removal of their roost trees do?
- Flying-foxes cannot be directed towards a particular environment and therefore their dispersal is unpredictable
- Currently the CBD colony has been concentrated in the city, but now they may either spread across the city and into the suburbs
Recent tree trimming and felling activities have scattered the flying-fox colonies even more within the Cairns CBD, potentially causing new issues for local businesses. The CBD colony which has been present for the past 30 years is now being threatened by human intervention. Due to the geographical location of the city, being adjacent to the coast, unless they decide to migrate far enough, the main direction in which the bats can disperse is out towards the suburbs and into our backyards.
A number of trees were removed on the 1st and 20th May 2015, for the development of the new aquarium and the Cairns Novotel Oasis Resort. Although the spectacled flying-foxes are a nationally vulnerable species, the developers were still able to gain approval to remove the roost trees surrounding the resort, including a number of Heritage listed Moreton Bay Figs[xii]. This was possible due to amendments to legislation, in this case the Nature Conservation (Wildlife Management) Regulations 2006.
Relocation is not a predictable practice. Only 20% of the possible relocation areas researched have been deemed suitable. Their dispersal is completely uncontrollable, and the chances of the bats choosing a suitable roosting area is very slim. It is hoped that the flying-foxes choose to move south, however, there is worry that if dispersal is towards the north, it can affect airport traffic, which would be the most detrimental result to the relocation attempt (as stated in the Relocation Plan by RPS Australia).
Sharing our city with flying-foxes
- Flying-foxes are in decline and moving into the cities
- We can’t change their behaviour, so we must learn to live together
- Rather than trying to rid our city of flying-foxes, we should consider making compromises and include them in city plans and protect their roost trees
- We need to look after them because they look after us!
Flying-foxes are in decline nationally mostly due to habitat destruction and climatic changes. These two causes are the main reasons why flying-foxes are becoming more urban. Cities are now providing year round food resources with the trees we have planted and cities also provide an increasing need for protection.
As a flying mammal there is no way we can exclude them. We cannot change their behaviour, so we must learn to live together.
- Education about bats and their important ecological services
- Better management of day roosts
- Support for wildlife tourism
Rather than trying to rid the city of flying-foxes, we should consider making compromises. Create safe havens where they can roost in safety and include them in future city plans. We need to conserve and protect our large trees that flying-foxes use for food and for roost trees. These areas then need effective management to alleviate bat/ human conflict.
Although flying-foxes do carry bacteria and viruses, risk of infection is low as long as educational information is made available to the public to prevent any incidents from occurring, such as the use of signs and adequate roosting space.
Remember, avoid contact with the bats. If you find an injured bat please contact a wildlife carer:
- Bat Reach Kuranda (07) 4093 8858
- FNQ Wildlife Rescue (07) 4053 4467
- Tolga Bat Hospital (07) 4091 2683
Article by Tiffany Kaesermann, CAFNEC volunteer, June 2014
[i] Fox, S, Luly, J, Mitchell, C, Maclean, J and Westcott, DA 2008, ‘Demographic indications of decline in the spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) on the Atherton Tablelands of northern Queensland’, Wildlife Research, vol. 35, pp. 417-424.
[ii] Tait, J, Perotto-Baldivieso, HL, McKeown and Westcott, DA 2014, ‘Are Flying-Foxes Coming to Town? Urbanisation of the Spectacled Flying-Fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) in Australia’, PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 10, pp. 1 – 8.
[iii] Prideaux, B & Falco-Mammone, F 2007, Economic Values of Tourism in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management, James Cook University, Cairns.
[iv] Westcott, DA & McKeown, A 2014, Spectacled flying-fox monitoring in the Wet Tropics Region, Report to the National Environmental Research Program, Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Limited, Cairns (13pp.).
[v] Department of the Environment 2015A, Pteropus conspicillatus – Spectacled Flying-fox in the Species Profile and Threats Database, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 6th April 2015, http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=185#summary.
[vi] Thiriet, D 2010, ‘Flying-fox conservation laws, policies and practices in Australia – A case study in conserving unpopular species’, The Australian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 161-194.
[vii] Department of the Environment 2015B, Nationally Important Camps of Spectacled Flying-fox, Australian Government, viewed 11th May 2015, http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/0f6f5576-50e8-4e02-be7c-18e7d3ad7f23/files/map-spectacled-flying-fox.pdf.
[viii] Farrier, D, Whelan, R & Mooney, C 2007, ‘Threatened species listing as a trigger for conservation action’, Environmental Science and Policy, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 219-229.
[ix] Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) 2010, ‘National Recovery Plan for the Spectacled flying-fox Pteropus conspicillatus, Report to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water Population and Communities, Canberra.
[x]DEHP 2012, Vulnerable, Queensland Government, viewed 11th May 2015, http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/threatened-species/vulnerable/index.html.
[xi] Nature Conservation Act 2002 (Qld)
[xii] Vlasic, K 2015, Bat-tle lines drawn as council faces $100,000 plus in fines after pruning city’s trees in Cairns, The Cairns Post, viewed 6th April 2015, http://www.cairnspost.com.au/news/cairns/bat-tle-lines-drawn-as-council-faces-100000-plus-in-fines-after-pruning-citys-trees-in-cairns/story-fnjpusyw-1227184129004.