Bat slaughter = Hendra virus control?

Bob Katter, an Australian Member of Parliament and leader of the Australian Party, has proposed culling flying foxes (fruit bats) as a way to control Hendra virus, which is spread by these large Australian bats. He's not the first person to make such a proposal, but it's a knee-jerk reaction that in reality doesn't make a lot of sense.

It's not completely clear whether Mr. Katter is proposing a plan to completely eradicate the flying foxes altogether, or to simply let people kill any such bats they find on their property, but neither approach is likely to be effective in terms of decreasing the risk of Hendra virus transmission.

If people kill flying foxes on their property, they'll just be replaced in short order by bats from neighbouring areas.

Trying to eradicate the entire species is a bad idea for a variety of reasons:

  • Tinkering with a complex ecosystem doesn't often turn out the way you want it to. Australians certainly know from past experiences that bad things can happen when new species are introduced (rabbits are just one example). The same might happen when a species is removed.
  • Eradication of the species is probably impossible or at least very difficult. I don't know much about the reproductive rate of flying foxes, but if the species can reproduce at a reasonable rate, they can probably replace the culled animals unless people are really aggressive and seek out all remote breeding sites. The limitations of culling have been clearly shown in rabies control, where it doesn't do much because culled dogs are quickly replaced by new dogs.
  • Eradicating flying foxes would be very expensive. What could that money do if put into research on vaccination, treatment, and other worthwhile ventures? What if efforts were focused on eliminating flying fox roosting sites in horse pastures? Overall, the impact would probably be much greater.

Why stop with flying foxes? Australia has lots of nasty critters, ranging from spiders to saltwater crocodiles. Should we kill all of those too? Dog bites kill more people than Hendra every year. Should we kill all dogs?

Hendra virus is not something to ignore. While infections in horses are rare, they are usually fatal and there's the risk of transmission to people. Human infections are very rare but often fatal. So, ways to reduce infection of horses as a means of reducing both human and horse disease are important, but the slaughter of flying foxes doesn't make a lot of sense.

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