'Pushed to their limits': Plea to add endangered species to critical list

WARNING – DISTRESSING IMAGES: Extreme heatwaves are contributing to dramatic losses in populations of Australia’s flying foxes, sending them on a collision course to extinction, environmentalists warn.

Spectacled flying foxes, endemic to parts of Far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea, were listed as endangered two years ago following mass die-offs.

Approximately 23,000 bats, or one third of the Australian population died after temperatures soared in 2018 and 2019, leaving them unable to regulate their core body temperature.

A wheelbarrow full of dead flying foxes, taken after the 2018 Cairns heatwave.
Thousands of flying foxes died during extreme heatwaves in 2018. Source: David White / HSI

Horrifying images from 2018 showed wheelbarrow loads of dead animals being pushed out of parks, and carers were inundated with orphaned babies to care for, forcing some to work around the clock on little sleep.

Large die-offs of flying foxes are now occurring regularly as the climate changes.

Nomination to update endangered listing to critically endangered

Despite the species’ endangered status, Humane Society International (HSI) say it’s already out of date, as this listing does not reflect the most recent “catastrophic losses”.

This concern has led HSI to nominate the species for a federal and state critical endangered listing yesterday, which according to the IUCN Red List means they would be at an “extremely high risk” of becoming extinct in the wild.

Piles of dead flying foxes found during the  summer. Source: David White / HSI
Piles of dead flying foxes have become a reccurring scene each summer. Source: David White / HSI

Hotter summers over the coming years due to climate change are expected to further amplify their demise, according to HSI’s head of programs, Evan Quartermain.

“This is a species that we've watched decline so severely over the last few decades, that it shows we’re still not acting in their best interests,” he said.

“It's very important to have the correct conservation status in effect, so that we can guide the actions that we take take to try and mitigate that.”

Dispersal of endangered bats from city centre contested

If spectacled flying foxes are listed, Mr Quartermain believes decision makers could better understand how to serve the best interest of the species, particularly when it comes to stressors including habitat destruction and the forced dispersal of roosting bats from the centre of Cairns.

He argues government spending on spectacled flying foxes is currently heavily weighted towards forcing them out of human populated areas, as opposed to conservation of the species, and that needs to change.

Left orphaned due to heatwaves, baby flying flying foxes were taken into care. Source: David White / HSI
Left orphaned due to heatwaves, baby flying flying foxes were taken into care. Source: David White / HSI

Cairns Regional Council, which manages a key roosting site in Queensland, told Yahoo News Australia it has spent a total of $2 million on "flying fox activities" over the last two years.

They did not answer a question about what percentage of these funds went towards dispersal, but added with fewer flying foxes at key sites, council spending on bats is expected to be "considerably lower" over the next year.

The council's general manager of infrastructure services, Bruce Gardiner, said their efforts to remove the flying foxes from the city's library area have benefited the community and the animals.

"There have only been six recorded spectacled flying fox deaths at the Cairns Library in the past year, that is in contrast to previous years where over 200-400 mortalities have been recorded at the site," he said.

"The absence of flying foxes from the City Library site has also been welcomed by the community residents, who are able to use this public space without incident."

From humpback whales to mountain pygmy possums, animals of all sizes will be affected by climate change. Source: Getty / AAP
From humpback whales to mountain pygmy possums, animals of all sizes will be affected by climate change. Source: Getty / AAP

Climate change putting pressure on pygmy possum and blue whale

Climate change is expected to contribute to lower numbers of most wildlife species, so researchers are working to understand which animals will be impacted most in order to allocate funding effectively.

Scientists have recently been debating whether to delist the humpback whale in Australia, as numbers have increased due to a ban on hunting.

The counter argument is the whales will be impacted by climate change, as warming waters are seeing a decline in their main food source, krill.

At the other end of the size scale, tiny alpine species are also particularly susceptible to the pressures of heatwaves, according to Mr Quartermain.

“We’re seeing animals like mountain pygmy possum reach the top of its altitudinal limits,” he said.

“Species like them just can't go any higher. They're really pushed to their limits, and there's nowhere else to go.”

The spectacled flying fox nomination will be assessed by Queensland's Species Technical Committee on April 28, before being sent to the Commonwealth for consideration.

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