Saturday 23 September 2017 News Updated at 03:09 AM IST
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Enter the cave - Deccan Herald
Enter the cave
Kalpana Sunder,
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The fruit bats used to be also hunted down by farmers who thought these warm-blooded nocturnal creatures were a threat to their crops.
I have never been a fan of Batman, but I’m looking at millions of nocturnal winged creatures that have always inspired fear in me, with the distinctive phosphorous and ammonia smell of their droppings in the air. The Monfort Bat Sanctuary in Samal, Davao, on the island of Mindanao in the Phillipines, is the Guinness Book of World Records-certified world’s biggest colony of fruit bats, housing more than 2.5 million rousette bats.

"The bats have been on the island from the very beginning,” explains our guide. They used to seek shelter inside the caves. During World War II, the Japanese forces used some caves in the island for their shelter, which contributed to mass devastation of bat colonies in the cave.

The fruit bats used to be also hunted down by farmers who thought these warm-blooded nocturnal creatures were a threat to their crops.

Bat-man relations

The founder of the bat sanctuary, Norma Monfort, has had a lifetime affair with these creatures. Her family lived in a house near the cave, and when she was a teenager, she would venture with her friends into the caves to see the bats. In the evenings, they came out in an orderly manner, flowing in a circadian flight, and set out to pollinate crops. She was so passionate about the creatures that she raised her own funds and brought in scientists from the Bat Conservation International to ensure the protection of the bats.

In 2011, Monfort was honoured as one of the 'Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund Conservation Heroes’. The award is bestowed to "extraordinary individuals who are passionate about protecting animals and habitats in areas of critical concern.” The tireless Norma plans to create a chiroptorium, man-made cave, in the future, which allows visitors to view the bats interactively while enclosing the sanctuary for the bats’ protection.

The Monfort Bat Cave is about 75 metres long and has five entrances. Bats cover 75% of its limestone ceilings and walls, plastered in dark patches. I see the caves overflowing with these creatures… the sound track is provided by the symphony of high-pitched shrills. Black masses coat the walls and ceilings: some cramped, others hanging upside down, some mothers holding their babies. I learn that the Phillipines is home to 26 indigenous bat species, and that bats are believed to be important for the existence of rainforests.

They pollinate and distribute seeds as well as eat harmful pests. Fruit bats are also a good source of guano - one of the most effective fertilisers. Guano deposits are one of the most expensive manures due to their high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.

The main diet of these bats consists of fruits and nectar, and the Monfort bats are famous for pollinating the infamous durian fruit, which has a distinctive strong smell. Long ago, the island had about 70 caves filled with bats, but people either hunted the mammals for food or disturbed them while harvesting guano for fertiliser.

If people enter a bat cave, nursing mothers can be easily startled, causing their pups to tumble to their deaths.

Our guide at the bat reserve explains that "bats are often misunderstood to be blood-sucking vampires or Draculas, but they are just gentle creatures, and are actually useful mammals that act as pollinators and facilitate seed dispersal.” I pick up bat trivia like bats can live up to 30 years; there were more than 1,000 kinds of bats globally! The smallest bat in the world, bumblebee bat, can fit into a matchbox. And that they can smell their food from as far away as 48 km. The bat colony is usually able to survive natural predators - crows, rats, 10-foot pythons, and occasionally, monitor lizards - just as bat populations do elsewhere.

In their own space

There are different enclosures at the park for senior-citizen bats and young ones. We even see a maternity ward with pregnant bats and another that’s an exclusive male preserve! We are lucky to see the White Lady bat, the only white among the millions of hanging bats.

Fruit bats are directly responsible for the high density of durian trees that proliferate in the surrounding mountains covered with rainforests. The bats live in a single cave - guests are not allowed to enter, but they can peer over bamboo railings into any of the five openings where the seething masses of sleeping fruit bats coat the cave walls.

The bats used to roost all around the island until continuing human encroachment drove the flying mammals to seek refuge on the Monfort farm. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers are on the rise.

"If you want a really jaw-dropping experience, come back at 5 pm when the bats fly out in a formation in search of food,” says our guide. We put it on our wish list for the next time.