Any incidents of outbreaks of the Hendra Virus are a tragedy for our region. It’s always sad to see healthy horses stricken with this virus and die as a consequence. I can only imagine how terrifying it is for those individuals caring for these animals that are exposed to the risk of cross-infection and the traumatic wait to confirm that they are clear of the virus.
We also need to factor in the economic impact of this tragedy. There is no better example than what happened recently with Blazing Saddles. Like all businesses in this region it was initially affected by the downturn in business through the GFC and the subsequent loss of tourism revenue, the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi and the fact that no businesses in our region had any access to Category D NDRRA support. We then add the earthquakes in New Zealand and the tsunamis in Japan, two of our main tourism feeder markets. The operators were then severely affected by the decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia which caused the operators to survive on a tourism market that was just starting to rebuild and in the peak of our tourism season they become a victim of the Hendra Virus, which has effectively closed their operation for the next 42 days.
It’s little wonder that there has been some emotive calls for extreme action against flying foxes from some quarters, sadly this won’t solve the problem and more likely create even greater issues to deal with in the future.
It is important that we respond in a considered way and don’t be lured into a knee-jerk reaction on this issue. I know there have been calls for the culling and the total annihilation of the flying fox by some individuals, but this is totally inappropriate given that fruit bats play a critical role in our ecosystem through pollination of our native forests.
We do however need to look very seriously at establishing an appropriate management plan that will minimise the risk of the cross-infection of the Hendra Virus to horses and humans and at the same time afford appropriate protection to the fruit bats.
We must adopt a zero tolerance of the establishment of fruit bat colonies in populated areas. Fruit bats need to be removed from these areas as soon as they arrive. Allowing flying foxes to congregate and settle in locations like the Cairns CBD and Yungaburra township and other similar locations is an unacceptable risk and as a matter of course these colonies need to be encouraged or forced to relocate by whatever means is available. Generally this can be effectively achieved through non-lethal methods by upsetting their settling patterns through noise and other disturbances.
Accepting the establishment of large scale horticultural endeavours throughout our region is providing fruit bats with a significant artificial food source, it would be expected that numbers of dominant species of fruit bats could expand to unsustainable levels, and therefore part of the management plan needs to be to monitor and control any population explosions of these dominant species.
To ignore these facts and allow fruit bat populations to develop above natural sustainable levels is going to continue to elevate the risk of ongoing Hendra infections, it will continue to have a massive economic cost to our region and if unmanaged will eventually threaten the very existence of the fruit bat.