‘It was literally raining bats at Casino on Saturday,’ said WIRES incident manager Katy Stewart of the catastrophe that faced wildlife carers as thousands of bats dropped dead out of the trees in the 44-degree heat.
‘It’s very lucky no one was hit on the head by a falling flying fox while they moved about trying to rescue the babies,’ she said.
Ms Stewart told Echonetdaily that Richmond Valley Council staff had picked up ‘2,135 dead adult black-headed flying foxes, 611 babies, 93 grey-headed flying foxes, 20 baby greys and one little red’, adding council estimates at least another 2,000 adult bats are lying dead in inaccessible spots along the riverbank – ‘with an overpowering stench’.
‘Another 500 blacks died at Kyogle but the overwhelming majority of the deaths were at Casino,’ she said, where up to half of the colony is believed to have been wiped out.
The scope of the rescue exercise resembles a hospital in a war zone, Ms Stewart told Echonetdaily, as the babies – some of them only days old – require round-the-clock care.
‘In the beginning they were brought to one facility, which is a person’s home. On that first [Saturday] night, there were 260 that were brought to that house. Forty died overnight.
‘Fortunately the following day Sydney and Coffs Harbour WIRES organised a person to pick up 100 of those little darlings and they drove them down to Coffs where they were rehydrated and fed and sent on to Sydney where they were dispersed to various different carers.’
‘Then we were left with 120, which we had to move to another house because there just wasn’t enough room there – we kept getting more in.
‘We had to make up a triage – it’s like a war zone, so there’s a big triage table with all the different medications, injections etc.
‘No sooner were they moved on, [on Sunday] than another 160 more came in.’
Massive logistical exercise
Ms Stewart said that during the days that followed WIRES had had ‘an awesome groundswell of support from around the state and from Queensland. And we owe a huge debt of gratitude to other organisations not part of WIRES, including Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers and Northern Rivers Wildlife Carers. Some of these people have hardly slept since’.
The subsequent challenge of first stabilising and then re-homing the bats was a massive logistical exercise, she said.
‘Gradually over the days we’ve transferred most of the pups to different organisations within New South Wales and some 90 across the border to Queensland, which meant we had to get special permission to transport them at short notice from National Parks and Wildlife both here and in Queensland.
The very young age of the bats means they will be in care for at least four months yet, Ms Stewart said.
‘The bulk of them on the Saturday were about four weeks old and the ones that came in on Sunday and Monday were two to three weeks old, with a couple of literally newborn ones that were being birthed by their dying mothers.
‘They will have to be raised on milk and then they’ll have to be weaned from their milk. Then they are what we call creched, where all the babies go together and are fed on fruit, which is going to cost us a fortune – grapes, watermelons, apples, pears – whatever we can get hold of.
‘Then finally they are released back into the wild, with their colony.’
Ms Stewart said carers were ‘shaking in their boots’ at the prospect of another heatwave predicted for the coming weekend.
‘Everybody’s that exhausted they can barely stand but the teamwork has been absolutely amazing.’
She added that many of the carers were themselves experiencing trauma at the sheer scale of the catastrophe.
‘Let’s say you were a dog lover and everywhere you looked was another dead or dying dog. These people are being deeply and horrendously affected. I have to give it out to these girls and men. It was literally raining bats on them. Bats were thudding down on the ground all around them. They were all boiling hot and racing to save every bat they could. It must be the worst possible situation to find yourself in if you were a bat lover and carer.’
Ms Stewart said that the reason for deaths was the awful coincidence of unseasonably hot weather and the fact that most of the adult females were lactating or pregnant or had recently given birth, so not at their peak fitness.
She added that she believed ‘a good proportion’ of [the mortalities] were females although there was no way that people could get round to sex them.’