Drought conditions are taking a toll on Mid-North Coast flying fox populations with many finding it difficult to survive in the wild.
Wildlife rescue organisation FAWNA has seen an increase in the number of flying foxes dying and now residents are reporting deaths in suburban back yards.
The region's primary maternity camp at Wingham Brush is severely depleted and it appears the animals are flying out in search of food, staying put when they find it, and dying when it's gone.
As apex pollinators, the preferred diet of flying foxes is pollen and nectar, with fruit being eaten when they cannot source blossoms.
With no blossom available and not a lot of fruit, flying foxes are exhibiting what is called 'tree guarding'. When food is scarce, they are finding trees with fruit and instead of eating from the tree during night time and then returning to roost at their camp, they are staying in the tree and guarding their food supply.
They are being found low down in trees, indicating they may be sick or injured, or dead on the ground because they simply are starving to death. Being on or low to the ground means that curious animals, particularly cats and dogs, can come in direct contact with the bats.
The natural instinct for a lot of humans is to try and help them, but health authorities and wildlife rescue organisations are urging people to not approach, or let their pets approach, the animals because of the risk of contracting Lyssavirus.
"Although there have been no recorded cases of the infection in dogs or cats in Australia, it is possible that domestic pets are susceptible to the disease." Phil Kemsley, North Coast Local Land Services district veterinarian said.
Lyssavirus can be contracted by bats, horses and humans. Although the risk to humans is very small, contracting the disease will cause death if left untreated.
"If you find a sick, injured or abandoned flying-fox, contact a licensed wildlife carer organisation or local veterinarian. Members of the public should not handle live bats. Only trained, vaccinated bat handlers should attempt to handle bats," Dr Kemsley added.
Dr Kemsley recommends that if you know or suspect your pet has been in contact with a bat, clean any apparent wounds by washing under running water for five minutes and apply an iodine-based antiseptic.
"After cleaning any wounds, seek veterinary assistance from your local veterinary practitioner without delay for the safety of pets and owners". Said Dr Kemsly.
The same applies for humans, only seek medical attention with a doctor.
In addition, if you are bitten or scratched by a bat, the bat must be killed so a biopsy can be done on its brain to determine whether it carries the virus. This means, instead of helping the bat, you are causing its death.
How you can help starving flying foxes
If you come across a sick flying fox, call rescue organisation FAWNA on their 24 hour number 6581 4141, but remember, do not approach the bat. This will advise you of what to do until they arrive.
You can actively help the flying foxes by supplying them with what are called 'fruit kebabs' - fruit strung on wire to be wrapped or hung on a tree. Suitable fruit are apples, grapes and mangoes. The fruit must be strung at a minimum height of two metres from the ground, otherwise they will be vulnerable.
Fruit kebabs should not be supplied continuously otherwise they will become dependent on humans for food. Do it randomly and sporadically.
Even if you do not have a bat residing in a tree, you can still install a fruit kebab so they can find them while searching for food.