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Calls to 'Bomb' and 'Cull' Flying Foxes

Why do humans think they own the planet? Are we as a species so ignorant of basic ecology that we would continuously deprive the very creatures who make the forest of anywhere to roost? It is frightening to watch this attitude balloon into what could potentially be not only suicidal but ecocidal.

After Hendra virus was found in a Queensland dog recently, and a total of 14 HeV infected horses died or were put down since June 20 this year, Queensland opposition Liberal National Party (LNP) leader Campbell Newman suggests smoke bombs and choppers to evict urban bat colonies then the roosting trees should be cut down. Failing what he refers to as 'humane relocation of colonies,' he recommends that the bats be 'culled.'

Premier Anna Bligh issued warnings to the media from scientists that moving bat colonies out of populated areas would increase their stress levels and could worsen the spike in Hendra virus cases. She announced that Qld and NSW would increase Hendra virus research funding by $6 million over the next three years.

Charters Towers Mayor Ben Callcott went even further. He is quoted as saying that he backed the use of helicopters but said culling rather than smoke-bombing was the real solution. He said "Bats are the same as dinosaurs, we have got no dinosaurs and we should not have any bats either."

But dogs, cats, rats, mice, brush-tailed possums, bandicoots, hares, carpet pythons and any blood sucking insects such as ticks, mosquitoes and march flies also carry HeV, should we ‘cull’ them all too?

Do Flying Foxes Cause HeV in Horses?

The link between flying foxes and horse hendra is not definitive. AAHL research shows that HeV cannot be transmitted directly to horses from flying foxes (from urine/faeces/saliva). Aust Veterinary Journal Vol 76 No 12, says: “It is possible to transmit HeV from cats to horses. Transmission from Pt. poliocephalus to horses could not be proven and neither could transmission from horses to cats ….. the virus is not highly contagious.”

Not enough is known about how Hendra circulates in the environment. Other possible infection routes need to be investigated e.g. exposure to other species or food contamination from cat/rat/mouse faeces. It's possible that horses and flying foxes could be infected from a third source.

There is no threat to humans as long as bats are not touched. Hendra does not spread easily and is rarely transferred from horses to humans.

Why do we Need Flying Foxes?

Flying foxes are keystone species. Humans could never plant forests as quickly and effectively as bats which disperse up to 60,000 seeds from night-flowering species each per night. Our World Heritage forests, endangered ecological communities, woodlands, forest ecosystems (along with the biodiversity they contain) and fruits like bananas, paw paws, durians, cashews (including hardwoods, banksias, eucalypts and melaleucas) could not survive without flying foxes.

For Mayor Callcott to be inducing public hysteria with his media statements is irresponsible and could endanger flying foxes. Two species are already federally threatened. Their habitat has been seriously eroded by human encroachment and their populations are being hounded from roosting spot to roosting spot. Humans simply must learn to cohabit peacefully and respectfully with these forest makers or we will have no more forests.

Threats of Bats to Humans Compared with Threats of Humans to Humans

According to the Bureau of statistics causes of death 2008 updated 31/03/2010, 26 people died falling from ladders, 226 people died in motorcycle accidents, 182 deaths due to obesity, and 1402 total transport accidents and from other sources around 14000 die from smoking related illness, 10000 from alcohol related illnesses. 29000 Australians are know to be HIV positive, do we quarentine these people to protect the spread of infection? Is it our innate features that allow us to accept threats by fellow humans and at the same time rise to eliminate threats from wildlife? Since the early 1970's there have been 26 fatality’s caused by crocodiles. Whenever a crocodile shows it's head near an urban area there is a rise to cull crocodiles. The same reaction is being seen towards flying foxes. Are those in society who cry out to remove potential threats from wildlife to the pinnacle of human evolution, which will ensure no other species will threaten our continued rise?

While research is totally focussed on flying-foxes the real culprit could remain unidentified. We need good investigative science to solve the problem, not hysteric, knee-jerk reactions from bureaucrats like Mayor Callcott.

Lastly, we can live without horses but we cannot live without flying foxes, so let's get our priorities straight.

This year, 2011, is the International Year of the Bat, let's get this one right for a change!


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Flying foxes are currently getting a lot of bad press. Their role in our environment is not understood by the general public, or by many veterinarians. Their populations are declining in the face of deforestation and climate change. Rather than understanding their importance in our world, when our increased interactions result in emerging diseases, it has been easier to demonise them rather than to see that these diseases are a symptom of the changes that we humans have created.

Australian Veterinary Association Newsletter NSW January 2010

Most diseases in human originated from livestock. Since time immemorial animals have been a major source of human infectious disease. Certain infections like rabies are recognized as zoonoses caused in each case by direct animal-to-human transmission. Certain infections like rabies are recognized as zoonoses caused in each case by direct animal-to-human transmission. Others like measles became independently sustained with the human population so that the causative virus has diverged from its animal progenitor.

Cave bears also show evidence of tuberculosis or a related disease, brucellosis. Tuberculosis is an heirloom disease, meaning it is inherited from our primate ancestors.

Brucellosis, also called undulant fever, has been passed to humans in milk and cheese from infected cows and goats since these animals were first domesticated. Rats, mice, ground squirrels, and other wild rodents have lived with plague for millions of years.

The World Health Organization recently announced that global warming has affected 40% of the world's ecosystems resulting in an increase in tropical diseases. HIV and Ebola virus, both thought to originate in wild primates, are associated with deforestation. AGW is often used as a polite smoke-screen for human overpopulation, proliferation and encroachments onto wildlife habitats. Increasing demands for human "carrying capacity" means risks to both humans and wildlife - in extinction threats to non-humans and increasing diseases.

Despite the growing threat of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases, our understanding of the process of disease emergence remains poor. Public health measures for such diseases often depend on vaccine and drug development to combat diseases once pathogens have emerged.

Deforestation of tropical forests is one cause of increasing contact between wildlife and hunters. Deforestation rates in Cameroon are high, with a loss of 800–1,000 km2 forest cover per year and corresponding increase in road-building and expansion of settlements. Cameroon is representative of the region from which a range of notable emerging infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Marburg viruses, and monkeypox, have emerged.

Hendra Virus is a zoonotic disease; that is the disease can be transmitted from horses to humans during close contact with an infected horse. Regional deforestation has changed the seasonal foraging movements of flying foxes lead to an increased reliance on horticultural crops, resulting in a relative increased density of bats proximate to human and livestock populations.

Flying foxes play an important role in the forest. Pollen and nectar feeding flying foxes are involved in the pollination of many Australian tree species in both rainforest and dry woodland forests. By landing onto flowers to feed, the flying fox picks up pollens from one tree and carries them to another. Better than bees, flying foxes can travel up to 40km in an evening, and they assist in maintaining genetic diversity of these trees.

With increased fragmentation of the landscape, and thus smaller honeyeater birds becoming geographically isolated within the fragments, maintenance of this diversity our forest species is now more reliant upon the flying fox family. Forests are essential to all creatures.

It is human activity that is the catalyst for modern emerging zoonotic diseases. Our interactions with this species should be based on science and common sense, not demonising them based on the perceptions of a story-hungry and emotive media - such as "bombing the bats"!