Into the bat cave

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By Betsy Gazo

Kaleidoscope

Thursday, March 6, 2014


THE above is a rather trite title to use but the phrase was the first thing that came into my mind. How could I resist this opportunity to channel my inner Batgirl when the biggest population of Geoffroy’s rousette fruit bats in the world is in the Philippines?

This distinction is certified by the Guinness World Records. This important piece of natural heritage can be found in Samal Island in Davao del Norte, off the coast of Mindanao. Known as the Monfort Bat Cave, it is the residence of 1,800,000 Rousettus amplexicaudatus.

I like bats. Yet, fear may spring forth from the hearts of other humans when bats are mentioned. These nocturnal creatures have been misunderstood, maligned and maltreated.

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Bats are valuable to the world’s ecological system. The insect population including disease-carrying ones would explode without the bats that feed on them.

Fruits and crops will be missing an important pollinator. Fruit-eating bats help disperse seeds throughout their pathways so this fact makes them significant agents in reforestation.

The Samal bat cave is located in the 23-hectare property of the Monfort family known as the Monfort Bat Sanctuary. Its owner and general manager, Norma Monfort, is also its greatest protector.

No one (except for conservation scientists) is allowed to enter any of the five openings of the sanctuary. Not even to harvest guano that has piled on the cave floor because it can mean death for the bat babies who get startled when the cave is disturbed.

I had the opportunity to meet and accompany Mrs. Monfort to the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation center. She was amazed at how one can find an animal sanctuary right in the city and wishes that Davao would have one of its own, too, for the protection and conservation of its endemic species.

She was guided around the center by its veterinarian, Dr. Joanne Justos, with whom Mrs. Monfort had an enlightening exchange about bat species in Negros especially those found in Mambukal Resort.

Dr. Justos even showed off the lone male flying fox of the center. Then, Mrs. Monfort passionately launched into a discussion on her colony back home. I learned more on how to never undervalue the role of bats in our ecosystem.

Mrs. Monfort likens the cave at Samal to a brothel because of the mating habits of the bats. The bats have an unusually high pregnancy rate. This population explosion was brought about by the absence of human intrusion ever since management discouraged any disturbance in 2005 after a TV reality show was shot inside the cave; many of the pups fell to their deaths during the shooting.

Visitors now can only peer into the cave openings. Bamboo railings were put up to keep tourists at a safe distance from the colony.

In contrast, many bat caves around the country have either caved in from natural calamities, invaded by guano gatherers or raided by bat hunters for their protein fix.

Conservation aid from other conservation groups was difficult to obtain in the beginning but Mrs. Monfort persevered in her effort.

Then, she sought the help of the Texas-based Bat Conservation International, Inc. whose founder and president Dr. Merlin Tuttle came over to visit.

It was then that things started to look up for the bats. Eventually, Mrs. Monfort would be the founder of the Philippine Bat Conservation and the Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation Foundation Inc. (MBCCFI).

Mrs. Monfort’s commitment to bat conservation is total. The land where the colony lives in has been with the family for generations. She is preserving not only a family inheritance but also an important link to agricultural and economic well-being.

Bat Conservation International member Alice Zurmuehlen said, "If the wonder of nature still exists, then the bats in Samal at Monfort Cave is one of the very few left on earth, particularly in the Philippines."

Mrs. Monfort was awarded the 2011 Disney Worldwide Fund Conservation Hero for her work in protecting the bat sanctuary. This awardee encourages everyone to put up bat houses at home in order to protect bats and give them a safe place of their own. They will surely return the favor.*

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 06, 2014.

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