By Alice McCarthy

Baby bats waiting to be fed on a Batty Boat Cruise.
Above: Baby bats waiting to be fed on a Batty Boat Cruise.

A Brisbane agricultural scientist and bat researcher says the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland is trivialising the impact of human exposure to Australian Bat Lyssavirus.

Scientist Brian White, also the director of Brisbane’s Riverside Equestrian Centre at Moggill, says the Society’s operation of their Batty Boat Cruises is irresponsible.

Batty Boat Cruises take guests from Mowbray Park to Indooroopilly Island where they watch the summer fly-out of thousands of bats for their nightly feeding expedition in the suburbs.

Baby bats are also brought aboard to meet guests.

Mr White says the cruises are an unacceptable risk to the public.

“It’s trivialising Lyssavirus. It’s not worth the risk of someone coming in contact with an infected bat,” he said.

The cruises take guests from Mowbray Park, East Brisbane to Indooroopilly Island, six kilometres from Brisbane CBD
Above: The cruises take guests from Mowbray Park, East Brisbane to Indooroopilly Island, six kilometres from Brisbane's CBD.

“The woman in New Farm recently exposed to the virus has needed 18 injections in two weeks to protect her from what is essentially rabies.”

Mr White also says it is likely there are more infected bats in southern Queensland than in recent past summers.

“Bats have migrated south and west,” he said.

“Their food sources up north were destroyed by the cyclone and they’ve come south, bringing starvation and depressed immune systems with them.”

However, Batty Boat Cruises Coordinator Joanne Towsey, a University of Queensland PhD student studying flying foxes, says there is no risk of any virus being transmitted to guests.

“Lyssavirus can only be transmitted to people from the saliva of an infected bat via a bite or scratch,” she said.

“There’s no chance of this happening to guests as the only people onboard allowed to touch the bats are the vaccinated and experienced baby bat carers.

“As for Hendra virus, there is no evidence that it can be directly transmitted from flying foxes to humans.

“The virus has only ever been transmitted to people from horses.”

Ms Towsey also says bookings are going well for the upcoming cruises.

The Batty Boat Cruises have run each summer since 1982 with only brief cancellations such as during the mid-1990s when the Hendra virus and Lyssavirus emerged, and earlier this year due to local flooding.

“One of our first cruises for the season, on October 30, is nearly half booked with over 35 people,” Ms Towsey said.

Click above to play YouTube video: A vaccinated carer cradling a baby bat on a Batty Boat Cruise.

“Most people leave with a different outlook on bats.

“They’re found to be endearing, just like any other animal.”

Dr Les Hall, a Zoologist and former CSIRO Wildlife Scientist and Veterinary Lecturer at the University of Queensland, has spent over 40 years studying bats.

Dr Hall says media sensationalism fuels an unfounded level of public fear about bats and associated viruses.

“The big outbreak of Hendra virus this year has been most unusual,” he said.

“Before now it’s only been here and there over the years.

“However, people don’t get Hendra from bats and the chance of someone being exposed to Lyssavirus on a Batty Boat Cruise is zilch.

“The only way it could happen is if a bat flew onboard and bit someone, and that hasn’t happened in 20 odd years.”

The MV Neptune is the vessel used for the Batty Boat Cruises
Above: The MV Neptune is the vessel used for the Batty Boat Cruises.

The Department of Environment and Resource Management’s (DERM’s) General Manager of Conservation Strategy and Planning, Clive Cook, says the Batty Boat Cruises are a good initiative to help people understand the value of one of Brisbane’s most important bat colonies.

“Flying foxes play a crucial role in pollinating our native forests and keeping them health,” he said.

“In turn, these forests provide carbon sinks, clean the air, stabilise our rivers and water catchments, and provide opportunities for recreation and enjoyment.

“However, as urbanisation takes over an increasing amount of bushland, there is greater potential for communities and flying foxes to become close enough neighbours to create problems.

“While DERM is not involved in the operation of these cruises, the important wildlife messages the Society provides to patrons will assist members of the public to become aware of the vital role flying foxes play in our environment.”

Brisbane Branch President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland Susan Vernon says the Batty Boat Cruises are one of their most successful public education initiatives.

“The majority of people that come on the cruises are educated about the realities of the urban conflict between bats and residents,” Ms Vernon said.

“Although, many are surprised by what an important environmental role bats play with the pollination and dispersion of the seeds of native trees.”

The Chairman of the Brisbane City Council’s Environment, Parks and Sustainability Committee, Councillor Peter Matic, says more Brisbane residents should be encouraged to go on the Batty Boat Cruises.

“It’s all about achieving the balance between protecting bat colonies and making sure residents are not adversely impacted by the locality of the bat colonies,” Councillor Matic said.

“So initiatives that help us better understand where we live and how we live in those areas are great,” he said.

Queensland Health was unavailable for comment.

Related coverage: See the Brisbane Times article
‘Batty’ plan to counter bad reputation