David Werner

While in Australia in Sept/Oct 1999, I had the long-awaited opportunity to visit an old friend of mine, Hugh Spencer, who now runs AUSTROP, a tropical research station in the coastal rainforests of the Cape York Peninsula, in north-eastern New South Wales.

I first knew Hugh as a precocious “boy naturalist” when I studied biology (for 3 years) at the University of New England in northern New South Wales over 40 years ago.

At that time we took many field trips together into sub-tropical and subantarctic rain forests hunting for exotic orchids, birds and bugs.

When I studied at the University of New England, I edited the newspaper, Nucleus, and wrote many editorials around the then still unpopular but expanding campaign to end the apartheid “White Australia Policy” and give the Aboriginal people the same basic rights as the Whites.

On my recent visit to Australia, I was delighted to learn that when Hugh had studied biology at the University of New England, 6 years after I had graduated from the same institution, he too had edited Nucleus, and had also campaigned for issues of social justice, Aboriginal rights, and environmental integrity.

Hugh’s love of rain forests and flying foxes eventually led him to the Cape York Peninsula where he and friends are working to save the biodiversity of the rainforests from encroaching sugarcane plantations and other environmentally destructive commercial ventures. One of their endeavors is to educate the public about the importance of appreciating and preserving the environment. Groups of school children from all over the country come to learn about Australia’s unique rainforests, and to contribute to reforestation efforts by planting indigenous trees.

Hugh and his team run a rainforest information and resource center called “The Bat House” on the main coastal highway. (Even Batman has visited there and made a generous contribution!) One of the main attractions of the Bat House are “orphaned” and injured flying foxes, which the folks at AUSTROP adopt and befriend.

Flying foxes, or so-called “mega bats” are fruit eaters with a wing span up to 2 feet across. Wide-eyed, intelligent, and affectionate, they are now thought to be primates, more closely related to lemurs (and hence to people) than they are to the smaller “micro bats” which in many ways they closely resemble. Unfortunately, a large number of White Australians have the same disdain for the indigenous flying foxes as for the Aboriginal peoples. This is partly because the flying foxes travel in large numbers (in times past over a million in a flock) and when they settled on a farmer’s orchard they would strip it bare of fruit in a matter of minutes. But now the flying fox population has been decimated and some species are in danger of extinction. Yet the old passion of “search and destroy” persists.

Hugh and his group try to awaken people to the finer attributes of these miraculous creatures, in a campaign for their preservation. They find that the opinion of adults is hard to change. But when children are given a chance to relate to a flying fox on a one to one basis, they often become their admirers and defenders.

For me it was a delight to spend a few days with Hugh and to see how he has kept alive his love of wild things, which was the purpose and passion of his childhood.