MORE than 1000 flying foxes died during heatwave conditions at Glenreagh on the weekend (Feb 11-12).
Glenreagh Flying Fox Camp Management Committee member Tracy Chapman counted the devastation.
"The two heat spikes wiped out a large rookery on the township side (of Orara River)," Ms Chapman said. "The whole lot of them are dead. I've physically counted every single flying fox on the township side and there were more than a thousand.
"They've fallen en masse below the trees they're roosting in. A lot have tried to seek shelter and been caught up in weeds, which resulted in their demise as well. It's quite horrific.
"There were a lot of juveniles, mums and babies and pregnant females."
A similar number are believed to have perished on the other, less accessible, side of the river.
"It's unequivocal, the flying fox population in the region has fallen by half."
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Locations throughout eastern Australia experienced record temperatures on Sunday, including Grafton reaching its highest ever recorded temperature of 46.3C.
More deaths to come as distressed pups starve
Ms Chapman warned there were more deaths to come.
"When we were standing there listening it was horrible because we could hear hundreds of pups crying and there was nothing we could do.
"There's going to be another mass die off in the next few days. There's a whole lot of pups in the trees, with no food and calling out in distress, who will fall as they get weaker.
"They are waiting for their parents to come home and feed them and they're too young to fly off and feed."
While not as extreme as last weekend, temperatures are again expected to heat up, reaching up to 36 degrees on Saturday.
Sickening story of animal cruelty during fatal heatwave
As Ms Chapman and teenage resident James Ranny counted the cost on Monday afternoon, they came across something else far more sinister and gut-wrenching.
There is a possibility that not all the deaths were due to the curse of nature's course. Some may have been the result of acts of animal cruelty.
"I found flying foxes with broken bones and it didn't make sense," she said. "At first I didn't know what I was looking at."
A little further investigation revealed the harrowing truth.
Ms Chapman said local witnesses had described children bashing the bats with tennis racquets.
"Speaking to some children in the area on Monday afternoon, they described the incident as it had unfolded on Sunday.
"Stressed flying foxes will fly down low to lick the water. Because the bats were disoriented, kids who had been swimming in the area took advantage of that.
"They started bashing the flying foxes with tennis racquets. They had put extensions on the racquets to make them longer and beat the bats as they tried to climb back up the trees.
"What occured on the weekend was truly despicaable and unbelievably cruel."
Ms Chapman said she has photographic evidence of more than 10 bats with broken wings who died prematurely from injury and not heatstroke.
She said she had taken the matter to the police, the RSPCA, Office of Environment & Heritage and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
"Locals have said the children are not to blame. Well, their parents are accountable, aren't they? They are responsible for explaining what is right and what is not."
Decaying bats a public health concern
James Ranny was eager to warn residents that the area in Glenreagh was a public health concern.
"Please refrain from going down near there, or taking children down near there until we have a secure area," he said.
James said Clarence Valley Council workers had been organised to clear the bodies. He also warned police had been notified of people killing and beating bats.
"Not only is it inhumane, but it is illegal," he said.
Solution to turn tragic negative into uplifting positive
At a Glenreagh Flying Fox Camp Management committee meeting on Thursday night (Feb 16) Ms Chapman planned to put forward a proposal to regenerate the area that, after the weekend passed, no longer houses the flying foxes.
She said the topic of relocating the animals had long been a hot topic of debate in Glenreagh and that this tragedy had actually opened an opportunity for the community to benefit in the long term, while not impacting further on flying fox populations.
"We've got an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive," she said.
"On the township side, we could regenerate that area and bring it back to its natural state.
"At the moment that area is in a woeful state. Right now we have a weed infestation problem and the soil is eroded.
"We could cut off the dead camphor laurels that the flying foxes roosted in. Then once we cleared the weeds away, I believe all those rainforest seeds that have dropped from their bellies are lying dormant just waiting to explode and I would think that the whole area would regenerate naturally to its original pristine state.
"If we clear that area the bats can't come back to that side in the park. At least then we can eradicate a large majority of people's fear and people should be a lot happier.
"But we must act quickly and clean the area up before the next colony comes back and roosts again."
Could flying foxes become a tourist attraction for Glenreagh?
Ms Chapman said by clearing the township side of habitat but maintaining the habitat on the other side of the river, Glenreagh would also have an opportunity to use the flying foxes as a tourist attraction.
"We have one of the most spectacular flying fox viewing areas in the region," she said.
"Our situation is different to Maclean. The bats are not right in the township, they're on the river in Glenreagh.
"If we have these buffers we can co-habit."
Fighting lonely battle for keystone species
Ms Chapman describes herself as a lone advocate for the flying foxes in Glenreagh.
While the flying foxes were obviously heat-stressed and also being killed by children on Sunday afternoon, wildlife rescue organisation WIRES was not contacted by any residents to assist.
"It was a WIRES member from the Clarence Branch who travelled an hour to check on them and found them all dropping that called WIRES," she said.
"I'm a lone wolf. It's been an interesting state of affairs here.
"Most people want the bats gone. End of story.
"But the great thing about flying foxes is that they're a primary keystone species. If you examine what that is, you start to understand the ramifications - no bats equals no people. They have the keys to the everything in the forest that feeds the bees that feed us."
What is a keystone species and why are they so important?
A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Such species are described as playing a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms in an ecosystem and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community.
According to the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy flying foxes play a vital role in keeping ecosystems in good health.
They play an important role in pollinating flowering plants and dispersing seeds, which helps expand the genetic diversity and resilience of ecosystems.
They are considered vital in ensuring the survival of threatened rainforests such as the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests in northern NSW. Their importance for the survival of such vulnerable ecosystems will only increase with climate change.