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Rare bat on the verge of extinction -

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Reporter: Di Bain

PETER CAVE: Time's ticking for a tiny bat which resides on Christmas Island.

Latest surveys show there are just 20 pipistrelle bats left on the WA coastal island and
conservationists are calling for help.

They say the micro-bat could be wiped out within weeks and if that happens, it will be the first
time in half a century that an Australian mammal has been lost.

Di Bain reports.

(Sound of pipistrelle bats)

DI BAIN: They're not much bigger than the tip of your thumb and weigh less than a 10 cent coin.

It's thought the delicate bat known as the pipistrelle was blown over to Christmas Island by a
storm centuries ago.

But despite surviving all that, the pipistrelle population is now dying.

MICHAEL PENNAY: People report, you know, 20 years ago, they used to see it flying around in the
settlement, and around town and all over the island.

DI BAIN: Michael Pennay is a bat enthusiast.

He's a zoologist and heads up the Australasian Bat Society.

He says no-one knows why, but surveys show Christmas Island bat numbers started to fall in the
1980s.

Now there's just a handful left.

MICHAEL PENNAY: The last time it was checked was in January this year, and at that point there was
definitely less than 20 bats believed to be out there on the island.

And if the rate at which there declining is expected to continue, then using the observed declines
up until that point we'd say that the species is likely to go extinct sometime this year; probably
in the first half of the year.

DI BAIN: Do you know what's causing the decline of the pipistrelle?

MICHAEL PENNAY: This is a really tricky one. No-one really knows for sure what's caused the decline
and that's one of the big mysteries about what's happening on Christmas Island.

We really don't know. There's a number of key candidates, but none of them have really been proven.

DI BAIN: When was the last time we lost a mammal or a mammal in Australia?

MICHAEL PENNAY: The last known mammal species to go extinct was a small wallaby that went extinct
about 50 years ago.

And since then, we haven't had anything that's gone extinct.

There's been things that people have been very concerned about, like the tasmanian devils had a big
drop recently.

But the Christmas Island pipistrelle will be the first Australian mammal that's gone extinct in the
last 50 years.

DI BAIN: He wants the Federal Government to fund a captive breeding program before all the bats are
gone.

Veterinarian Dr Derek Spielman from the University of Sydney says microbats have successfully been
bred in captivity before.

DEREK SPIELMAN: There are institutions that can breed them, and there are some very experienced
rearers who have got very good success with either rehabilitating injured adults or even rearing
youngsters to be rehabilitated and released.

So the knowledge is there. They are a lot of work and difficult, but it can be done.

DI BAIN: Are they difficult because of their size? They're only tiny, aren't they?

DEREK SPIELMAN: Yeah, they're very small. And yeah, that's one of the main difficulties, especially
with handling; you have to be so gentle, and they are very - they can fly, and their quick. And
they're so fragile, that you must handle them very carefully.

But also their diet being insectivorous, it's not - you have to put a lot of effort into providing
the right diet for them, as far as insects and diversity goes and make certain they don't get
calcium processing imbalances and other dietary problems.

DI BAIN: The Environment Minister Peter Garrett says a working group will report their
recommendations about how to save the pipistrelle next week.

And captive breeding is an option - but it poses many dangers.

PETER GARRETT: Captive breeding has been contemplated.

The difficulties there are that we don't want to jeopardise what might potentially be a very, very
small population of remaining pipistrelle bats in a captive breeding program which frankly fails.

And it's been very, very difficult in the captive breeding trials to catch a related bat species
similar to the pipistrelle in the Northern Territory, which we've put in place straight away.

DI BAIN: Mr Garrett says he wants to ensure there's sound environmental science to back up any
decision he makes to help save the Christmas Island bat.

PETER CAVE: Di Bain reporting.