I used to be like you. I lived in the city, I became vegan and I went ‘to the country’ occasionally, getting angry at the lack of signage about the massacres through which my fellow colonists come to be here. I knew about the bees dying and REFLEX paper through Facebook, and I thought that the old growth forests, like the greenies, were somewhere ‘out there’, somewhere further away than Daylesford or Castlemaine. Then I moved, uninvited, to Gunai Kurnai Country, 300 km east of Melbourne, and shit got real. Now I see old growth forests every day – in truck convoys carrying trees to the saw mill and in the smoke of the planned burns that cloud the air. There are too few people willing to put their bodies between the state and the destruction it orders.
How can I tell you?
I’ll just speak of my backyard, and about one specific day.
I live on a river the invaders named ‘Mitchell’. It starts at the base of the highlands and runs 121 kilometres, through spectacular gorges, to the plains where white men ringbarked the red gums to imprison animals in paddocks. Grey-headed flying foxes live here too, right here in so-called Bairnsdale where the river turns to straighten up and flow the final 10 kilometres to the lakes. The colonists cleared all the way to the rivers, so the flying foxes love this 100 metre stretch of protected steep river bank for its established canopy of poplar trees and its lush understory of ivy. It is cool there when it’s hot, and warm when the winds chill. They return to this colony every spring to give birth to their young and to reunite with the teenagers and old timers who winter here when too weak to migrate. Mothers birth their babies while hanging from the branches, labouring against gravity then catching the newborns in their wings and holding them to their breasts. At twilight, they circle and swoop and fly out to the few remnants of native forest with flowering banksias and eucalypts to sustain them. They are our night-time pollinators, and you would know yourself how they die strangled by netting when they’re forced to turn to colonist fruit trees to survive. They know in a way we can’t understand that as we destroy their forests for mines and timber, with fire, and to graze other animals, we do not care that they will have nothing left to eat.
Since 2015, East Gippsland Shire Council has been enacting an EPCB permit given to them by the Federal Department of Environment and Energy to cut down the trees in the flying fox colony. With the rationale that some of the ageing poplars have a one in 40,000 chance of falling over (by their own estimates) and harming the public who have a right to stroll through the colony whenever they want, the council totally cleared a third of the site in 2015, and did not revegetate. This has displaced the colony of about 6,000 flying foxes further south, into big plane trees fully exposed to the sun, over the bitumen and picnic tables along my back fence. The bats need undergrowth to cool the environment because when the temperature hits 37 degrees, they clump low in the tree, seeking cool. When it hits 43 degrees, their organs shut down and they die.
By removing the vegetation and not replacing it, the council have forced the colony into an area at least 10 degrees hotter than the one they destroyed, and significantly raised the temperature in the original site. Individual colonists have thus brought danger to the flying foxes. Endangering animals and making them extinct is a result of individual action within a structure that normalises violence against certain populations.
Friends of the Bats and Habitat Gippsland (FOBHG), a local organisation formed in 2018, have been asking Council and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) to revegetate the cleared land because it is vital to keeping the maternal colony cool enough to survive a heat event. The council has thus far determined to continue removal of the maternal colony habitat, and their permit is valid until 2022. In autumn 2018, a flier in local letterboxes announced that Council would remove a large number of the poplars the very next day. There were a few of us ready to lock on to protect the habitat where heavily pregnant bats were roosting, and so the trees remain.
The colony swelled to over 6,000 flying foxes as the days got longer. At 4 am the flying foxes would return from their night’s journeying for food. Awoken cockatoos squawked in protest as the bats reclaimed their branches, and the sunrise hours were an orchestra of baby flying foxes squeaking and feeding, adults exchanging info about the night, and posturing teenagers fighting over branch space.
You know the hot days that each summer brings us in Victoria – and Friends of the Bats had been fearing the deaths that would occur if we had extreme weather. In December 2018, more than 10% of the total community of Spectacled Flying Foxes were killed by a heat event in Queensland.
When the temperature on 25 January 2019 hit 40 degrees, DELWP phoned the leader of the Friends of the Bats, Lisa Roberts, and advised her that they were closing the track through the main colony and that supporters of the bats should stay away. They didn’t close the access road underneath the trees along my back fence.
When the temperature hit 45 degrees, do you know where I was? I was in my apartment, directly facing the river, with the blinds down and the air conditioner on. I knew that Lisa would be focusing on the wellbeing of the flying foxes, and just that, knowing that someone else knew more than me, was how I enabled myself to do nothing in my own backyard. I went to the river at 2 pm after Lisa phoned to say that the flying foxes were dying in large numbers. It was just the two of us, with two 30-litre backpacks of water, misting the bats with water as they clumped together in heat stress, the final stage before death in a heat event.
It was physically hard to pump the water, and through the rush of physical exertion, surrounded by dying animals, refilling and carrying the heavy backpacks, Lisa and I went through a range of reactions. Our strategy was to focus on groups of clumped flying foxes that could be misted, or on giving water to a bat on the ground, but awareness of the thousands of dying bats around us repeatedly exploded my focus. ‘This is futile!’ Lisa said at one point. We continued to pump the water. I didn’t relate to feeling it was futile, instead I felt rage at some category called ‘all the other people’ – people exactly like me, who clicked their love for nature on Facebook posts from inside their air-conditioned houses when I was there witnessing beautiful and intelligent creatures dying in pain.
The tree trunks and lower branches were covered in black clumps of flying foxes, huddling together in an attempt to find comfort, which further raised their body temperatures. The asphalt road and the grass verges were radiating heat, and were carpeted in masses, in thousands, of dead and dying grey-headed flying foxes. As far as the eye could see. The flying foxes kept falling from the branches onto the road at a steady rate. Some plummeted face down and died slowly. Others fell, exhausted, then tried to crawl back to a tree, facing the obstacles of their dead kin underneath them. I would turn them over and carry them to the parched grass, trickling water underneath them. When they were on their backs, you could see their bodies convulsing in different parts, different organs shutting down one by one. Many died in the tree and then fell, their bodies mortified with their heads bent down, an arm folded across their face trying to shield themselves from the heat. Up close, their ears are finer than those of a kitten; open and unfurled. Their big brown eyes follow you even when they are in pain; they learn quickly that you are trickling water near their mouths with care.
Amid the horror, people drove past to look at the dying bats. I asked a few of them to kindly not drive further, as the car could cause a flying fox to spend its last energy on trying to fly, which would kill it. One man told me he would drive wherever the f*$# he wanted and kept going. Others kept going without swearing at me. Only one of about six cars heeded my request. Lisa remembers one woman eating a picnic beside where she was spraying, the smell of death growing stronger. The woman exclaimed that a baby flying fox Lisa was attempting to hydrate was cute, and when Lisa said it was dying, the woman took a photo and again said it was cute, then continued eating. Lisa and I both later remembered seeing an ominous giant mushroom shaped cloud; I think I thought it was a hallucination manifesting my feeling that it was the end of the world.
The only car with a council insignia on the door to arrive was the cleaner of the public toilets. He was shocked and upset to find an apocalypse in his workplace, and he asked us why we hadn’t notified anyone that this was happening. He sat in his car and called the Council and DELWP, looking at us like we were crazy because we said they already knew this was happening. Perhaps many people are like this man – when they are confronted with one of these situations they believe that someone, somewhere, would have or will prevent it. It is hard for white colonists to really believe that our government is forcing extinction because we have relied on white colonial supremacy for our profit until now. I was like him. I am like him.
By 6 pm, only one of the flying foxes I had seen hit the ground was still alive, a big old fella who drank and stayed face down on the road but lived to be one of only four taken into care. He died the next day. When I saw a young one lose his grip and crash to the base of a tree trunk, I covered his body with my damp cotton shirt and lay down beside him on the dry grass. I rested my left hand gently on his back and felt his heart racing. I held my hand there above his body and looked into his brown eyes through mine, massaging the back of his head in slow circles, two fingers of my hand behind his two attentive ears. His hair was so soft, and his scalp just like that of a bird, or a human, and after some time his heat rate slowed. He closed his eyes and let himself rest. I trickled water near his mouth and his nose twitched, his tongue extended from between perfect, sharp white teeth, and he drank.
‘I want you to clean up all these dead bats! My dogs need to go outside and its not safe!’ I hadn’t seen the white woman arrive, and she stood above me. I didn’t move my hand from the bat’s head.
I looked in the direction she gestured, at the uncountable number of dying and dead flying foxes on the ground, their clay red and grey fur and their smooth black wings.
‘You are witnessing the extinction of a species,’ I said.
‘Well my dogs have been inside all day and I need this cleaned up.’
She tried to storm away, but slowed to pick a path through the corpses.
A DELWP man finally rolled up at 7 pm. He wound down his window to say, ‘I’m the incident management team, you can leave the site now.’
‘The incident was mass death, you’re too late, and one man isn’t a team. You’re the mop up.’ I said. He proved to be psychic when he told Lisa that I would be the problem for their ‘operation’. Yes indeed. The leader of the three men who constituted the rest of the ‘incident management team’ told me they’d been out euthanising animals in a forest fire and that he may look heartless but that he wasn’t. I went home, changed out of my wet clothes, and came back.
At the end of my back yard, the three DELWP workers were laughing while picking up dead bats and putting them in black garbage bags in the fast fading light. I watched. The flying foxes on the ground included those who were too dehydrated to fly to the river for water and were trying to drag themselves there with their ‘hand’ claws at the end of their wings. One was prodding the flying foxes with his foot before picking them up, and when one moved all three jumped back, startled, then laughed. He picked it up by one wing to put it in the bag with the others.
‘That one is alive! You can’t put him in the bag!’ I yelled. They stopped. The leader ordered one of the workers to get the vet. The man was confused, he hung around as if he didn’t believe he really should go and get the vet. I was asked to leave the site and I refused. They called the police and asked them to come and remove me.
I told the DELWP men that I live here and that I would watch them. We all stood and waited for the vet to arrive. In that time, the flying fox they had tried to put in the garbage bag with the dead climbed up the tree again. When the vet arrived, she hydrated him. I continued watching them bag the bodies for a while, but they moved on and I stopped watching when they had filled multiple trailers with black garbage bags. It was dark.
If the survival of the grey-headed flying foxes is the aim, the dead should be left on the ground because orphans cling to their mothers and can then be taken into care. Removal of the bodies as soon as possible was to suit humans, not the flying fox survivors of the disaster. The night was devastatingly silent until dawn, when some orphaned babies began crying for food. The smell of flying foxes under stress and dead was overpowering and pervasive. On the morning of 26 January, local wildlife carers found piles of dead babies on the ground – they had used their last energy to search for their mothers. Their mothers had been taken away.
DELWP estimated that more than 2,000 flying foxes died on this part of the river on 25 January 2019. They are endangered because white colonists (yes, white ones) are destroying their habitat. We need more colonists to follow First Nations calls to action, such as to protect the Djab Wurrung trees, and to witness and stand up for all against other colonists. We need to stop the logging and the burning of the forests. We need to be more courageous and determined to speak back to the individuals pushing vital species towards extinction only for monetary profit. They are individuals with names and, as one of the DELWP claimed, hearts. We need people to watch that the living are not bagged with the dead, and to be here if East Gippsland Shire Council moves to destroy more habitat on the river in Bairnsdale this coming autumn and winter. We need people who live in the cities to connect with us in rural towns, across Countries.
If you would like to be linked to us out here on the river and contacted when we need your support, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Lisa Roberts for educating me and many others on how to live here and how to try to help.