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Conservation shouldn’t be a popularity contest

Even Australia’s most iconic, charismatic species are in danger of extinction. Species such as the cassowary, Tasmanian devil and koala all enjoy significant community support and relatively generous funding…

People who get to know flying foxes are less likely to loathe them. michis

Even Australia’s most iconic, charismatic species are in danger of extinction. Species such as the cassowary, Tasmanian devil and koala all enjoy significant community support and relatively generous funding and yet find themselves at risk.

And if our most popular species are in danger of extinction, what will become of our unpopular species?

For species that are feared, disliked or even hated, conservation presents further challenges. Negative community attitudes show up as opposition to conservation efforts and to legislated protection. Unpopular species may even be deliberately harassed, harmed or killed, or have their habitat destroyed.

Flying foxes are often feared, despite their beauty. Ray & Sue Udy

This is the case for flying foxes, particularly in rural NSW and Queensland, where tolerance for the animals has been traditionally low.

Flying foxes are disliked because they occasionally feed on fruit crops when native food supplies are short. They can also be noisy neighbours when roosting near residential areas.

They are feared because they can harbour lyssavirus and Hendra virus, even though the risk to humans is extremely low.

Communities' fear and hatred has been fanned in past decades by the media and conservative politicians, both in and out of parliament.

When referring to flying foxes, politicians and media commentators have used inflammatory language such as “killer bats”, “horrible stinking vermin”, and “disease-ridden pests”.

Commentators claim that flying fox populations are “exploding” or “in plague proportions”. Residents living next to bat colonies have been said to live in “bat hell”; to be “terrorised”, “under siege” or in a state of “war”.

What’s not to like about flying foxes? Sheba_Also

Rarely do commentators focus on, or even mention, the crucial ecological role (pollination and seed dispersal) played by these animals, their uniqueness as flying mammals, their intriguing adaptation to hanging upside down, their complex social interactions, their intelligence and their pretty faces.

The recent outbreaks of Hendra virus in Queensland and NSW have deepened the human-animal conflict even further. The outbreaks have encouraged more vilification of the animals and more calls for them to be culled.

Governments have been slow – and in the case of Queensland, still unwilling – to list flying foxes as threatened species. This is despite evidence that two species declined by approximately 30% in ten years and that they suffer from habitat destruction and other threats from humans.

This reluctance may be due to the political implications of protecting deeply unpopular species in electorates with a lot of rural constituents.

A species' conservation status (common, vulnerable or endangered) affects funding for data collection and conservation strategies. It also sets the level of penalties applicable for illegally harming or killing the species.

As such, it is essential that such status be accurate and based on scientific evidence, not on a species’ popularity or on political considerations.

Even after being listed as threatened species, the spectacled and grey headed flying foxes could still be legally shot by orchardists. Their camps can still be harassed and relocated.


Shooting threatened species and deliberate destruction of their habitat is a rather unusual way to deal with threatened species. It would be unthinkable if it was any other species.

Laws for the protection of flying foxes have often been weakly enforced, or not at all. As a result, large amounts of illegal electrocution, shooting and harassment of camps have been allowed to go on unpunished.

Permit and license conditions have been weakly monitored, and when breached, governments have rarely been willing to prosecute. The few legal cases that have attempted to enforce the law for the protection of flying foxes have mostly been initiated by private citizens, not government conservation agencies.

So what can be done to protect unpopular species such as flying foxes? The answer lies with a multi-prong approach.

  • There must be zero tolerance for the illegal killing or harassing of flying foxes. Turning a blind eye simply fosters further illegal activities.

  • Strategic and proactive education programs should start telling positive stories about much-maligned species such as bats. People are more likely to protect animals they know and like.

In my experience as a wildlife carer, most people who claim to hate bats have never seen one close and know little about them.

  • Governments must base decisions about threatened species management on scientific evidence, not political imperatives.

  • The most difficult goal to achieve is fostering an understanding that humans and wildlife share the same planet, whether we like it or not.

Human-wildlife conflicts occur all over the world, from tigers killing people in remote villages, elephants trampling crops, wolves killing lambs, pigeons defecating over monuments and seals feeding on aquacultured fish. Culling animals in these circumstances cannot be a sustainable solution.

Unless these four elements are in place, it is likely that flying foxes will come under increasingly heavy attack each time a Hendra outbreak occurs. This could turn into uncontrollable killings with grave welfare and conservation outcomes.

There is hope though. If crocodiles can be viewed as an iconic, marketable species and a tourist attraction in northern Australia, despite the clear danger they pose, the same should surely be possible for flying foxes.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Harries

    Environmental consultant

    This dilemma has parallels in medical circles. Consider how much easier it is to run a marketing campaign to raise funds for breast cancer as opposed to other (I suppose you could say, less sexy) forms of life threatening cancer.

    Populist focus on the conservation of iconic cuddly animals does pose a direct barrier for protection of other threatened life forms, though I suspect it does offer an educational window for members of the public to be exposed emotionally and intellectually to the whole notion of ecological extinction and habitat protection.

    But it's time to move on to a more robust approach to species conservation, not good enough to just keep cherry picking the flavour of the day.

  2. peter macinnis

    logged in via Twitter

    The vilification of species is an old ploy. An article in the Hobart 'Mercury', Wednesday 20 September 1933, page 9 (viewable at, headed 'Fauna Board', accuses "porcupines" (echidnas) of being "destructive to wire fences", while platypuses were said to be "destructive to fish", in particular, to the trout which had been introduced into the Derwent. The comments on the Tasmanian tifer and wattle bird in the same article are also worthy of note.

    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to peter macinnis

      Peter, thanks for posting this link. Most informative!

  3. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    It's not really that bad, at least in the case of flying foxes. Victoria spent a great deal of time and money trying to move them from the heritage listed Botanic Gardens, with great success.

    Life's tougher for shark protection. But I reserve the greatest concern for the animals that simply don't make it onto the radar.

    That's part of the reason why species based approaches aren't terribly popular. Ecosystem/habitat approaches and focusing on keystone species has been more the way to go for a while now.

    1. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wil B

      Wil B, I am not sure what you are saying.

      The four large Australian flying-foxes species discussed in this article _are_ keystone species for our eucalyptus and rainforests because of their role as longstanding pollinators and seed dispersers.

      You may not be aware but prior to significant public outrage, the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne was shooting bats as a (completely ineffective) means of removing from the RBGM.

      As to your view that the action was sucsessful - the liberal voting new neighbours of the bats do not all love them. More concerning, every time there a heat wave in Melbourne, hundreds or thousands of bats die from heat stroke or dehydration. Heatwaves in Melbourne do not only happen since the bats moved to Yarra bend, but the bats never died at the RBGM because it has a much healthier microclimate for a tropical species.

    2. Shane Perryman

      logged in via email

      In reply to Wil B

      Isn't there some irony in the fact that we spend money to protect the "heritage listed" RBG, populated as it is with an array of introduced species, and demonise the displaced native species? ;-)

  4. Troy Coyle

    Research Manager

    This is an excellent article. At last someone has pointed out the clever PR campaign that is being used against flying foxes. Reminds me of the Howard years and the children overboard campaign... illegal aliens, fantastically macabre PR.

  5. Shirley Birney


    Ignorance such as that published in the 1933 article could have once been sustained but certainly not over the past few decades.

    The outbreaks of new and re-emerging zoonotic diseases are not only spread by wildlife and the like but even more commonly by billions of livestock animals raised for food in vast factory farms.

    The majority of antibiotics sold in this country are force-fed to livestock to keep them alive long enough to arrive on one’s dinner plate. As a result, the emergence of super…

    Read more
  6. Kissindra

    logged in via Twitter

    fantastic to see this article, I for one am a fan of microbats and flying foxes. Charming creatures with an important role to play in our environment, and they really are adorable too!