Call For More Support For Wildlife Volunteers

A James Cook University researcher says volunteer animal carers are at high risk of burnout with the current volunteer model unsustainable and in desperate need of more government support.

JCU Adjunct Associate Professor Hilary Whitehouse is a member of The Bats and Trees Society of Cairns, known as BatSoc, which supports volunteer wildlife carers who rescue injured bats and nurse them back to health.

Dr Whitehouse said species such as the Spectacled Flying Fox are in serious trouble.

"In the early 19th century, numbers of Spectacled Flying Foxes may have been as high as two million. By 2017, there were some 78,000 remaining, representing a 75 per cent fall in numbers from 2004.

''In 2024, less than five per cent of the original Spectacled Flying Fox population remains," she said.

Dr Whitehouse said the animal is a major, long-distance pollinator but also very importantly is a major long-distance seed disperser.

''These bats are recognised as of value to the World Heritage Wet Tropics' rainforests because of their ecoservices.

"But they could be legally shot for 'stealing' fruit from commercial orchards until 2016 and there are still regular reports of flying foxes being abused or killed on sight, even though this is illegal."

Dr Whitehouse said many people have been taught to hate bats and rehabilitating their image while trying to plug the gap in care of the animals was a significant challenge.

"Volunteering to care and educate for Australian flying mammals is a form of activism in a nation that fails to meet its obligations under the UN Sustainable Development Goals,'' she said.

"The problem of voluntary work is that there are matters of burnout and long-term sustainability to consider. The whole enterprise relies on the willingness of volunteer carers to keep going in the face of local political, economic, social and material difficulties."

Dr Whitehouse said a new Spectacled Flying Fox Species Recovery Plan is being prepared and should be published in early 2025.

"It was the hard work of the Bats and Trees Society volunteers and advocacy from partner members of the Spectacled Flying Fox Recovery Team during 2021 and 2022 that has led to increased government support.

"Until the recent funding, all work on the Recovery Plan has been carried out voluntarily by recovery team members outside of their normal employment. A previous recovery plan in 2010 was developed but never actioned and never funded."

As a result of this inaction, Dr Whitehouse said we now need greater funding for bat care and community education to save all bats from extinction.

''Support for the care of wild animals was a global phenomenon, with a large majority of people around the world keen to see flora and fauna flourish.

"This global movement, inclusive of education, is poorly recognised, rarely legitimised and under resourced and researched.

''It's really time for government at all levels to get on board and support people in making the kind of world the majority want to see a reality."

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