19 Mar 2020


An interview with Dr Anne Fowler,

Some of our native animals face a long, slow recuperation following the devastating summer bushfires and extreme temperatures. Even blazes that burnt interstate will continue to impact flying foxes for months and years to come, as vet Dr Anne Fowler from the Adelaide Bird and Exotics Vet Centre explains.

"Before the fires broke out in the Adelaide Hills, we had an extreme heat-stress event - four days of well over 40 degree Celsius temperatures and low humidity - when flying foxes dropped from the trees. It led to the death of 10,000-18,000 flying foxes in our colony. There were so many dead flying foxes that people gave up counting. And it wasn't just babies that died; it also killed reproductive adults.

We took in 10 young flying foxes from the Adelaide Zoo when it reached full capacity, and we were already struggling with them when the Cudlee Creek fire started. It was the weekend before Christmas, the busiest time of year for us when we board many of our patients. We had over 40 animals in the clinic already and then 10 flying foxes, as well as our regular sick animals coming through the door. So, Christmas week was a bit hectic. I still haven't sent some Christmas gifts.

Dr Anne Fowler with RJ the juvenile flying fox
© WWF-Australia / Leonie Sii

The youngest in the group of flying foxes that we received - RJ - still only weighs 320 grams. He really needed some mothering when he came in. We had him in a Mumma wrap because his mother would have folded her wings around him and actually cuddled him. I played the role of mother for a while; I’d sit for 20 minutes a day with him to write up records.

He's with his mates at school now, so that relationship's ending. He's getting to the point that if he were in the colony he'd be moving away from his mum. The challenge is to grow these youngsters as quickly as nature intended, to get them out at a similar time to others becoming independent of their parents. We offer them chopped fruit three times a day and a high-protein supplement. Watermelon has been quite cheap but fresh figs have been breaking the bank at $35 a kilo, but that's one of the foods they'd eat in the wild. We hope they will be large enough for release and can fly short distances, sometime in March.But even this little chap, here in Adelaide, is impacted by the fires interstate. Because at some point in his life he’ll migrate all the way up into Queensland, and regular flying fox stopover camps in Mallacoota, Victoria, and along the south coast of NSW have been burnt. Like some of the people who have been through the trauma of the fires, flying foxes have lost their families, homes and livelihoods, too.

RJ the orphaned flying fox is in care with Dr Anne Fowler in Adelaide
© WWF-Australia / Sii Studio

There's been a lot of controversy about flying foxes in Adelaide. We've forgotten the really, really important role they play as pollinators of our forests. These forests are giving us oxygen. They’re holding water in our soil. They’re providing the timber for the houses we live in, the paper and cardboard we use. In other parts of the world, flying foxes are providing us with coffee by pollinating coffee plants. Imagine a world without flying foxes and that’s a world without coffee. And if you've enjoyed a tropical fruit this year, you can thank a flying fox for that.

We really can’t survive without caring for this species. In pollinating forests, flying foxes also help to keep koalas alive, possums alive and all of those incredible little animals that we don't even have names for yet because the whole system is interlocked. Everything speaks to everything else. We don't know the minimum number of flying foxes needed to keep Australian habitats healthy. We may have already reached that point. So, every one of these little lives is important.

RJ the orphaned flying fox learns to climb
© WWF-Australia / Leonie Sii

The grey-headed flying fox doesn't like it too hot and has moved south. It’s actually expressing climate change. People say, 'but they weren't here and they shouldn't be here', but we're seeing an adaptive change to a climate that's changing. We've literally removed all of the places where they like to roost and eat on the east coast.

Australia is a nation that has burned for a long, long time, and we've had these great adaptive responses in the past. Unfortunately, I think we’ll reach what I call a new normal, where there's less habitat and fewer animals. We're seeing a number of endangered populations come right up against it, like flying foxes. We've asked so many animals to adapt or go. So, RJ has an important job to do, to keep the species going.

For a long time now, vets have simply done what we believe must be done for the native animals that come into our care: it's a vocation, not a career. On 20 December I made a choice to commit resources that were not just wages, but physical equipment, and my staff's time. There's an emotional cost, too, because there were really tough things for them to see. Having the opportunity to recoup some of the costs associated with the bushfires is fantastic because that hasn't historically happened. It will help some vet clinics to remain financially viable and it gives us a sense that someone has appreciated the work we've done. WWF support for vets [in fire-affected communities] is a really great initiative."

WWF and Dr Anne Fowler treating Cinders the ringtail possum who suffered burns to her paws in the Cudlee Creek bushfires in the Adelaide hills
© WWF-Australia / Sii Studio

Your donations are enabling WWF to support vets like Anne, through the Australian Veterinary Association. Thank you for continuing to invest in the recovery of our native species.

Through the WWF Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund, we’ve been able to deploy urgent support to wildlife and habitats impacted by bushfires. We’re also working with governments, businesses, scientists and communities to ensure long-term plans and projects are in place to restore and protect critical wildlife habitat.