Some studies have already demonstrated the role flying-foxes play in pollinating native forests, but a recent study in Ghana by biologist Dr Dan Taylor BCI has determined more firmly the species' value in timber production. This study focussed on the Iroko tree, the source of 17% of Ghana’s timber revenue, and found that only bats scatter undamaged seeds from Iroko fruit in vast quantities - often up to 300 million seeds each night - across many kilometres of forest floor.
Australian flying-foxes live mainly on nectar, and our eucalypt trees have adapted to nocturnal pollination by producing pale flowers at the ends of their branches, and their greatest nectar levels around midnight. This ensures pollen is carried often up to 50km radius on flying-foxes’ fur. In spring and summer when roosts become maternity and creche sites the females in particular must find their food in closer forests. At this time the animals form defined streams at fly-out time heading towards the most prolific flowering forests, mostly ignoring semi-ripe domestic fruit in orchards and gardens
During migration in March and April their diet shifts to ripened forest fruits, to maintain higher energy levels and keep their bellies full for longer distances. Australia's most juicy fruiting trees and shrubs (figs, lilly-pilly, koda etc) occur mostly in rainforests, but these have been so decimated by human activities that with domestic fruits fully ripe by this time, it is quite unrealistic to expect hungry animals not to use them.
Similarly in the breeding season, if the trees fail to blossom or produce abundant nectar, then ripening domestic fruits become their target. During drought times 25% of flying-foxes shot or wounded under licence are lactating or pregnant females. It is also well-known by wildlife care groups that if flying-foxes attack banana or coffee plantations, they are starving.
We can all learn from the actions of one small African nation. In Ghana flying-foxes are now fully protected, and the government is busy establishing educational and viewing facilities to aid their eco-tourist trade and forestry industry.
Perhaps instead of negative reactions of aggression and abuse, of animals that are working at growing our most useful timber trees, people who live in sight of a flying-fox colony might open their doors to tourists at a cost of $20 a head, with coffee and a bun included in a chance to study and photograph these amazing, unique animals.
- P Edwards