An island with millions of bats-A A +A
Friday, August 17, 2012
MENTION n Island Garden City of Samal – or Igacos for short – and diving sites and coral reefs come to mind. Marisa 1, 2, and 3 have reefs that max out at 30 meters. Divers have a good chance of spotting hawksbill turtles surveying the area.
Others come to the city because of its beautiful fine beaches, including the world-famous Pearl Farm Beach Resort which was featured in two international beauty pageants: 1986 Miss Universe and 2011 Miss Earth.
But what most Filipinos don’t know is that the city, with a total land area of 30,130 hectares, is home to millions of bats. The colony can be found in a 23 hectare protected area on a property owned by Norma Monfort in barangay Tambo, Babak District.
“I have never seen such an immense number of bats,” says Roy C. Alimoane, who recently visited the place. “The caves are overflowing with bats that are cramped very closely together hanging upside down, coating the large walls of the caves. Some are continuously flying, while several others are seen clinging out in the open so close to the ground.”
When it was first discovered, about 1.8 million bats reside in the five caves – to a density of 645 bats per square meter. The huge number made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 as the biggest colony of Geoffrey’s Rousette Fruit Bat in the world.
“Samal has about seventy caves, which used to be inhabited by these fruit bats,” says Norma Monfort, founder and president of the Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation Foundation. “Unfortunately, most of these caves are now empty due to irresponsible hunting and destruction of their habitats.”
Had it not been to the intense conservation efforts of Monfort, together with the support of the residence and the local city government, and in collaboration with several key organizations, the colonies might have been totally destroyed.
In January 2011, an American cave-mapping expedition stumbled upon an unusually high number of pregnant bats in the Monfort bat colony. The bat species does not usually give birth in the first month of the year, making the discovery a “big surprise” and forcing the scientists to halt their mapping project, Monfort reports.
The cause of the bat baby boom is unknown. However, Monfort suspects one factor may be that the cave is protected from humans as an ecotourism site, which allows their numbers to grow.
Currently, there are already about 2.4 million bats taking refuge at the 1,000-foot long cave, which has five openings. This alarms Monfort so much so that she is thinking of putting up an artificial bat cave for interactive viewing of both visitors and researchers.
Monfort wants to set up a chiroptorium, a word coined by J. David Bamberger, who owns Selah Nature Preserve Ranch in Texas. It is a combination of the word “chiroptera” (for hand wing bats) and “torium” from auditorium. There was one built in the 1990’s and is today a home for 250,000 migratory bats.
“The goal is for the bats to transfer to help relieve the tension of being so overly populated at Monfort’s,” said Monfort.
Last year, Monfort was honored as the “2011 Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund Conservation Hero.” The award is bestowed to “extraordinary individuals who are passionate about protecting animals and habitats in areas of critical concern.”
Winning the award, she said, means helping further bat conservation in the country and elsewhere. In her letter to her friends, she wrote: “That I have been given this recognition is simply signaling more work lies ahead for me using this ‘tool’ and putting it into good use because the problem we all face together is climate change. Let’s all learn, appreciate, and respect the invaluable work of bats as major agents of reforestation. There is so much to be accomplished that I plan to leave behind for the children of the world…”
Every last week of January, Bat Festival is being held at Babak District. Among the activities lined-up in the week-long celebration are sports competition, cultural night, cave management training, and a bat research design workshop.
Known scientifically as Rousettus amplexicaudatus, fruit bats are less appreciated and sometimes misunderstood creatures. But unlike the feared vampire bats, they are also good pollinators, says Monfort, whose family owns the property for more than a hundred years.
In fact, these bats are said to be the main reason on the abundance of durian fruits in the nearby city of Davao. Some experts believe bats are important to the general health and existence of the rainforest: more than 70 percent of the trees in the rainforest currently exist because bats pollinate, distribute seeds and eat otherwise harmful insect pests.
Fruit bats are also good source of guano, one of Mother Nature’s most effective natural fertilizers. According to Monfort, a kilo of guano fetches a price of US$200!
There are more than 1,100 bat species in the world. The Philippines is home to 26 indigenous bat species – more than any other country. The world’s largest bats – the giant golden-crowned flying fox fruit bat (Acerodon jubatus) and the world’s smallest bats – the Philippine bamboo bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) – can be found in the Philippines. The stripe faced fruit bat (Styloctenium mindorensis) is the world’s most recent fruit bat species discovered in Mindoro Island in 2007.
Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on August 17, 2012.