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Destruction of the Mount Etna Bat Caves

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Bill Lines, author of Patriots, a book about the history and evolution of the conservation movement in Australia, looks at one of the vain struggles of conservationists.    
Mt Etna was an old plug of limestone jutting out the plains north of Rockhampton that, for thousands of years housed many bat colonies. Apart from ghost bats there were a number of different species inhabiting the different caves under the mountain, depending on the temperature and humidity within each cave.

Marked to be mined for the limestone early in the 20th century, conservationists became interested in preserving Mt Etna in the early 1970s because of the threat to the bats. Some mining had taken place but only on a small scale and while the State government made promises to protect the site they also reneged. Various conservation organisations formed with Rockhampton as the base.

In the late 1980s the Bjelke-Peteresen government was defeated, bringing more hope to the Mt Etna conservationists but it proved to be a forlorn hope. Several mining companies consolidated into one company with ambitious plans to mine very large areas of the mountain. While there was plenty of other localities limestone mining, the miners had dug themselves in and did not want to be dictated to by conservationists. The looming encroachment on the bat caves was unacceptable to conservationists, who occupied the caves. People were still in the caves when the mine blasting began.

The blockaders went to court but the case was thrown out. Unable to raise sufficient money to mount an appeal, the blockaders had no legal avenues. The mining company laid a charge one weekend and blew half the mountain out, sparking belated, outraged protests as far away as Brisbane.

By the late 1980s the mining company had assembled quite a large stockpile of limestone but it was not used until many years later, serving as a stark reminder of the bloody-minded nature of the miners and government at the time.

Text: V.B. February 2009

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