Changing the law to protect our wildlife

The usual blue of the Victorian sky turns an unnatural brownish-red. It’s an otherworldly scene of destruction as smoke fills the air. Across the state, fires are rampaging through the dry bush. The heatwave throws Lisa Palma into a world of sweltering horror. Overwhelmed with emotions, she forces herself to observe her surroundings. It’s a disastrous scene. The once-thriving Yarra Bend National Park’s colony of grey-headed flying foxes is decimated. Palma discovers the “mounds and mounds of dead bodies” lying on the park’s ground. The overwhelming temperature has killed them.

A colony of grey headed flying foxes hangs from trees in Geelong's Eastern Park. Photo: Jena Carr 

Despite the exceptional efforts of Palma and other wildlife volunteers, more than 5000 bats died during the high-temperature event. The bats suffered extreme heat stress, with many dropping to the ground as volunteers ran around trying to save them. In the end, the majority of bats needed to be euthanised due to the extent of their injuries. Wildlife rescuers treated the surviving bats in rehabilitation for their heat-related injuries. “We saved a lot of lives, but we lost a lot of lives as well,” says Palma. In addition to being Wildlife Victoria’s CEO, Palma is also an active wildlife volunteer.  

The chaos of the 2019 bushfire season saw the loss of about 75,000 bats within one season. Since then, these numbers have significantly dropped as these bats face more human-related threats in a state with outdated wildlife policy.  

The Victorian Government’s recent decision to review the 1975 Wildlife Act calls for better protection of our threatened and endangered animals. The act outlines how Victoria’s wildlife is managed and protected.  

In a statement, Victoria’s Minister for Energy, Environment, and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio suggests the act is an old piece of writing that needs acknowledging. She has recently put together an expert advisory panel to perform a comprehensive review of the Act, which hasn’t changed since its creation more than 45 years ago.  

 “It’s important that the legislation that protects our wildlife is modern and fit-for-purpose,” says D’Ambrosio.  

According to the Victorian Government website, the Act does not follow appropriate modern practice regulation as it is outdated. Environmental Justice Australia identifies that koalas, wombats and native birds such as the East Gippsland eagles are among the various Victorian wildlife that would benefit from a reformed act. The new study looks to reflect the changing “community values and expectations” surrounding Victoria’s threatened wildlife.  

The grey-headed flying fox lives in selected areas within Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. As a threatened species, the bats face many challenges that affect their survival. Some of these challenges include the harm inflicted on them by humans.  

“We’ve had some pretty horrific cases of cruelty inflicted on the grey-headed flying foxes,” says Palma. Due to the intensity of cases she has witnessed, Palma didn’t want to go into any further detail. 

She says one of the biggest problems with the Wildlife Act is that it “fail(s) to appropriately recognise that these animals are sentient”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sentience means that you can “experience feelings” and that you have an understanding of yourself. 

According to Palma, they have minimal protections under the Act as it considers wildlife as an agricultural pest. She would like to see the penalties for harming wildlife increased under the new revision, along with better representations of our native animals.  

The Act’s creation took place when the concerns for wildlife were relatively non-existent. Sections within the outdated law describe how these animals can be moved from their homes, sold for a profit, and even killed if they end up on somebody’s private land.  

The flying fox is listed as ‘vulnerable’ under New South Wales law and ‘threatened’ under Victorian law. According to the Victorian government, someone can receive a fine of between $3,000-$38,000 if they injure or kill a bat. However, wildlife organisations feel these fines are too low and rarely enforced.  

On September 1 last year, Victoria took a step in the right direction by introducing Household Fruit Netting regulations to reduce wildlife deaths and injuries. Homeowners now must only use 5mm x 5mm fruit netting over trees, gardens, and other plants. The new regulation is something Friends of Bushcare and Bat Society president Lawrence Pope has been working towards for 17 years.   

“These changes in the law are extremely worthwhile. They change everything,” he says.  

Pope has spent most of his life fighting in an advocacy role to improve government views of our wildlife. Securing new laws and regulations can be extremely tough and take a long time. Pope proves that he will stop at nothing when he starts a campaign, spending a lot of his own time and money.  

“You have to have someone prepared to start it and to never ever stop,” says Pope. As an older man, the endless fight appears to take its toll on Pope. He is considering taking a break from the ongoing campaigns. 

The new netting regulations are a positive inclusion within the legislation, especially for the grey-headed flying fox that this netting severely affects. Working like bees, the bats fly long distances from plant to plant, helping pollinate our native forests with the seeds they carry around in their fur. They often get caught in these nets as they search for fruit and flowers.  

Nets act as a trap for the bats as they tightens around the animal, preventing them from flying away. Their claws, feet and wings become tangled within the cheap plastic as they reach for the fruit that sticks out from the small cracks within the net. The bats are subjected to painful tears in their wing membranes and become stressed as they struggle to get free during the ordeal.  

“I had one little guy who was trapped by a foot, and he was virtually biting his foot off to try and get free from the dreadful netting,” says Jillian Snell, the founder of Flying Fox Supporters Australia. 

The bat often needs to be euthanised when it experiences these injuries. It is a sad reality that faces many of these creatures. Victoria is the only state to introduce netting regulations, with Snell hoping to see them incorporated within her home state of New South Wales soon.  

There are divided opinions on whether Australia should have a universal law to protect these bats and our native wildlife. Like so many others, Snell would love to see the creation of a nationalised wildlife law. However, wildlife advocate Pope warns against it. Pope believes it would be better for each state to have better individual regulations than one general law. 

“We want the highest standard of bars to be raised rather than the bar to be lowered in order to get everybody under it,” says Pope.  

He explains that this could severely impact current laws, such as the Victorian Fruit Tree Netting Regulations.  

Overall, Snell wants to see an end to the distribution of this netting she names the “slice and dice,” as “it literally slices and dices through reptiles, echidnas, birds, snakes and flying-foxes”.  

“How many more animals have got to suffer injuries and die to prove that this netting is atrocious and should be banned?” says Snell.  

The most recent research conducted by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in 2015 estimates that about 680,000 flying foxes were left in the wild at the time.  

Snell fears for the future of these bats, as we could be seeing a world where they are “functionally extinct”. There may be a small number of these bats left, but they would be unable to pollinate our trees and forests properly. 

As a native Victorian mammal, grey-headed flying foxes only give birth to one baby a year. The offspring, called pups, solely rely on their mother for the first 12 weeks of their lives.  

Grey-headed flying fox numbers continue to decrease due to habitat clearing, the increasing threat of climate change and high mortality rates in their young. Extreme temperatures and fire in the summer season are a continual threat also.

Lynne Amore is the founder of Moonshadow Flying Fox Rescue and Rehabilitation in Sale, Victoria. She helps to rehabilitate and release the sick bats in her care, spending most of her time tending to their wounds. Her proudest moments are when she gets to release the orphans she has spent months feeding and raising back into the wild. Getting to spend that time with them is something she considers a “real privilege”.  

“They’re highly intelligent…They have humour. They play tricks on you. They’re clever. They’re just an amazing little animal,” says Amore. 

Calling them “sky puppies”, Amore says the bats aren’t as scary as everyone believes them to be. She finds that the bats have more similarities to dogs than many people realise as they are incredibly “cuddly and intelligent”.  

People fear bats because many believe they carry deadly diseases. A virus called ABLV (Australian Bat Lyssavirus) may be present in sick and injured bats in Australia. According to the Agriculture Victoria website, ABLV affects only a small percentage of bats, with less than 1% of Australia’s population carrying the virus.  

Although it can be a severe illness transmitted to humans, Agriculture Victoria identifies that this situation is rare, with only three human-related deaths since 1996.  

“You can’t get it through just touching them. You can’t get it through walking through a colony. You can’t get it through being pooped on or anything like that. It’s shedding their saliva. So you have to be bitten or scratched,” says Amore.  

Amore explains that ABLV human transmission is often avoidable and treatable as long as the infected person seeks medical attention immediately.  

“The general community really has no risk at all so long as they’re not trying to handle or pick up a bat,” Amore adds.  

If you come in contact with a sick or injured bat, do not touch the animal. Instead, report it to your local wildlife organisation immediately. Early detection could mean the difference between life and death for the animal. 

Due to the slight chance that the bat could have the virus, people can tent to distance themselves from the bats. This can lead to individuals disturbing bat colonies by using harsh lights and penetrating noises to drive them away. Often happening at night, the bats are forced to leave their branches within minutes of the disruption.  

Many orphaned bats die in these circumstances as they lose their grip on the mothers as they fly away and fall to the ground. Despite their efforts, the mothers cannot always return to their babies and have to leave them. The babies are left on their own for extended lengths of time without a source of food. As their mothers are their primary providers, the pups will starve as they are too young to find food and water.   

 “Our wildlife do not belong to a corporation. They do not belong to the government. They do not belong to an individual landholder. Our wildlife belong, in our view, to the Victorian community,” says Wildlife Victoria CEO Palma. 

Palma holds a sick kangaroo joey, who mummers along to her voice as she speaks. The seven-month-old offers a brief distraction as its chattering echoes through the phone during the interview.  

Grey-headed flying foxes aren’t the only animal that needs better protections under the Act. While kangaroos are a protected species under the 1975 Act, the government legally allows for the killing of this country icon. Under section 28(a) of the Wildlife Act, individuals can disrupt or kill wildlife if the animal causes property damage or poses a health risk. 

“We need to learn to live in harmony with our wildlife, not treat them as a pest to be eradicated,” says Palma.  

Announced in May 2020, the review of the 1975 Wildlife Act looks to provide updated regulations for protecting Victoria’s wildlife with a final advisory report expected in early 2022. 

“In particular, we want to make sure the legislation includes all the necessary safeguards to punish and deter wildlife crime,” says MP D’Ambrosio. 

As CEO, Palma acknowledges changes are needed to reflect the general public’s thoughts and feelings. She says that the review presents a chance to preserve our threatened and endangered species, such as the grey-headed flying fox.  

“I commend the Environment Minister for issuing a review of the Wildlife Act, which is well overdue,” says Palma.  

“People obviously care deeply about our native animals and about protecting them.”   

 

One comment on “Changing the law to protect our wildlife

  • A very interesting article. Leaned more about the bats than I ever knew. Hopefully; something will happen with the review and newer impute to the Law.

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