The great Australian double standard for wildlife

Social media feeds are currently inundated with footage of fire-ravaged koalas and kangaroos. And rightly so; they're our greatest marketing export and their plight has no doubt contributed to the flood of overseas donations.

It's a pity the same attention and outpouring of grief couldn't be paid to another native species more crucial to Australia's ecosystem and hardwood timber industry.

These forgotten victims have died by the thousands from ongoing extreme heat events and, more recently, from the national bushfire crisis. Yet barely a word has been said about them on the same platform.

Why? Generations of misinformation and exaggeration.

Over the years, flying foxes have gained the reputation of diseased-ridden vermin. Some even believe the absurd myth that they defecate through their mouths, thus reinforcing the 'filthy animal' stereotype. And most people are happy to live in this bubble of ignorance because, after all, it's just a stinky bat.

Any orchardist or suburban dweller with a fruit tree who's experienced a 'bat invasion' will gladly support their eradication rather than stop to consider the reasons why they've suddenly descended on their harvest.

It's easier to ignore the negative impacts climate change and intruding anthropogenic landscapes are having on our flying fox species, and instead condemn them to mass extinction, all because they took a bite out a mango.

The presence of flying foxes in South Grafton in recent weeks is likely due to habitat disturbance during last year's bushfires. Yet few are rushing out to supply them with food as has been done for the more 'socially acceptable' native species. Instead, they've been met with utter disdain for dare trespassing into an urban street. However, if the same number of kangaroos appeared on the same street, it would be considered a cute photo opportunity:

A NSW Police officer poses with a mob of grey kangaroos
A NSW Police officer poses with a mob of grey kangaroos NSW Police Force / Facebook

Why is one native animal considered a diseased pest while another is considered an adorable hero?

For instance, those 'cute' kangaroos are the number one native Australian species likely to kill you. According to a 2011 report by Australia's National Coronial Information System, kangaroos have indirectly caused 18 deaths between 2000 and 2010, most of which involved a road collision. They have also attacked countless people and domestic animals. 

Some of the victims of kangaroo attacks
Some of the victims of kangaroo attacks

In the 23 years since Australian Bat Lyssavirus was discovered, six people have died. This was after contracting the virus through direct contact with an infected animal. Not by simply playing a game of golf or while putting out the garbage bin.

Despite the data, we still welcome kangaroos with open arms and gladly let our children interact with them. After all; they're an Aussie icon.

Few have condemned these icons who decimate crops and native grasses, sometimes at plague proportions, costing the agricultural industry millions. The key difference here is that we created ideal conditions for kangaroos to breed unhindered for decades leading to such ecological destruction. (Fortunately, this overabundance has led to a thriving kangaroo meat industry.)

Whether people accept flying foxes or not, should they become extinct, so too will those beloved koalas - and our hardwood timber industry.

According to the Australian Department of Agriculture, in 2018-19, the forest industry generated $23.9 billion of sales and service income and employed around 52,000 people.

The majority of that income and those jobs wouldn't exist without flying foxes. After all, they are the chief pollinators of our hardwood timbers. Not koalas. Not kangaroos.

As we all take stock of this horrific bushfire season and start this new dialogue about Australia's climate change and man's impact on the environment, let's also start to acknowledge a native species whose absence will ignite catastrophic consequences for Australia's ecology and give them the respect they deserve.