Bats in the Land of Hornbills

Just a thousand of the million Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bats leaving their roost in starling-like murmurations. These bats are more than just a visual spectacle. They provide massive pest control in agricultural fields and draw tourists from all over the world.

“Bamboo Bat!”

My eyes gleamed when I heard that and rushed for the bats which were hanging in cloth bags. I gently rubbed my fingers on the outside of all the bags and picked the one with the smallest bat. I delicately removed the bat, holding it with just the tips of my first three fingers. This was no ordinary bat. Its head was flat as if slammed with a shoe! It had suction pads on its thumb and toes to help it cling and sleep inside thin, hollow bamboo culms. The bat in my hand was an evolutionary marvel. The Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) marked the beginning of a successful night. After it eight other species flew into our nets in quick succession. Borneo was beginning to justify itself as a naturalist’s dream destination.

In August 2015, I was in Sarawak to attend the 3rd Southeast Asian Bat Conference organized by Universiti Malaysia (UNIMAS), Sarawak and Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit (SEABCRU). After four intense days of talks, discussions and workshops with the most renowned bat biologists of the world, we were off to a bat lover’s ultimate pilgrimage – Gunung Mulu National Park.

A stretch of prime riverine habitat in a rainforest. Such riverine forests are extremely important for different species and guilds of bats.

Southeast Asia is one the hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world and Borneo – the third largest island in the world – is the jewel in its crown. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that more than 220 species of mammals, 420 species of birds, 200 reptiles and amphibians and close to 400 species of fish are found in Borneo. A part of this staggering diversity comprises iconic, threatened species like Bornean Orangutan, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, Proboscis Monkey and Hose’s Palm Civet which are found nowhere else on earth. Eight species of hornbills occur here and on their account, the state of Sarawak in Malayasian Borneo derives its apt title – Bumi Kenyalang – The Land of the Hornbills. However, unbeknown to many, the major contributors to the mammalian diversity of this incredible island are bats. With roughly 90 species, bats make up about 40% of all the mammals found in Borneo. Once you set foot on Gunung Mulu National Park, you know why.

The enigmatic Hardwick’s Woolly Bat. In some parts of Borneo this bat routinely roosts in carnivorous pitcher plants. The bat provides the plant with nitrogen rich droppings in return for boarding. New research also shows that those species of pitchers are also ultrasonically reflective, which means that they guide bats to roost inside them!

Gunung Mulu National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most spectacular landscape that I have seen. 20 million years ago, this stunning forest was an underwater mountain. Five million years ago, tectonic activity brought the mountain above water and what one sees today is lush-green rainforest criss-crossed by rain-fed rivers through which emerge jagged limestone mountains that give Mulu its unique pre-historic ambience. When rainwater touches upon limestone it dissolves the rock to form caves. On account of the undulating limestone hills and the heavy rainfall that Mulu receives, it has countless cave systems. Such is the vastness of this pristine and rugged limestone forest that it took 15 months and 115 scientists of the Royal Geographic Society, UK to map its topography in 1977-78!

We arrived in Mulu in the afternoon on 18 August 2015. Our plan was to assist the team of student-researchers from UNIMAS in their study on bats of Mulu. On our arrival, Ellen McArthur, a masters’ student who was working on the bats of Mulu greeted us with the delightful news that she had found something special for us during her routine morning reconnaissance. I whiled away my time watching birds and a hungry Prevost’s Squirrel gorging on leaves at the canopy until it was time to go bat hunting with Ellen. Ellen led us to the nature trail and after barely walking a kilometer she stopped abruptly in front of a wild turmeric plant. Neatly hidden inside a young, rolled-up leaf of the turmeric was a tiny bat. It was a bat high up on my wishlist – the Hardwicke’s Woolly Bat (Kerivoula hardwickii). This is a diminutive bat, hardly weighing 3-4 g. Its body is densely covered with sooty-black woolly hair. What makes this bat sui generis is its recently-discovered symbiotic association with a carnivorous pitcher plant. In the nutrient-poor peat swamp forests of Borneo, the pitcher plant Nepenthes hemesleyana has evolved to attract these bats into its pitcher. However, the plant does not eat the bat; it provides lodging and the bat pays its rent by feeding the plant with its nitrogen-rich droppings! Hardwicke’s Woolly Bats are also the supreme sopranos of the animal world. Their ultrasonic calls start at 250 kHz – that’s 12 times higher than what we can hear!

Literally, a wave of Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bats. Inset: the pretty face behind this sound-and-light show.

The following evening I had a date with a glorious phenomenon in nature; one that I had, hitherto, only seen on television. At 3.30 pm, a crowd assembled at the ‘Bat Observatory’ outside Deer Cave. Deer Cave—the largest cave chamber in the world—is home to an estimated three million Wrinkle-lipped Bats (Chaerephon plicatus). As dusk approached, the anticipation was building up at the observatory. I saw a handsome Bat Hawk perched on a vantage point, its eyes fixed at the cave. Suddenly there was a cheer from the audience; the bats had begun to emerge en masse. One after the other, groups of bats flew out of the cave in perfect synchrony like a flock of starlings. Each group formed a different pattern in the sky – ribbons, waves, ‘S’ and even a moustache! It was time for the Bat Hawk to get active and it launched its first successful strike in the middle of the bat group. At the mouth of the cave, I also briefly saw a large eagle, probably a Wallace’s Hawk Eagle trying to intercept emerging bats. I had watched this phenomenon in the television many years ago (even before I got interested in bats) but to see the drama unfold before my eyes was a dream-come-true.

The robust Diadem’s Leaf-nosed Bat. A handsome bat that forages in forest clearings.

On our last night in Mulu we beefed up our efforts to catch bats. A mistnet (a thin nylon net used to catch birds and bats for research) was spread on a bridge over a river. An ingenious trap called ‘harp trap’ was set up at a forest trail. This trap has metal frames with fine plastic strings stretched to full tension and placed in parallel rows as in a harp (hence the name). The frame sits on four legs and a collection bag is placed at its base to allow a safe landing for bats that hit the strings. The bats are then picked up from the bag to be identified. Harp traps are particularly effective for strict forest-dwelling bats that often detect mistnets through their ultrasound. One of us was also deployed with a hand-held hoop net to catch bats flying in the open air. Ours was a truly global bat trapping team with representation from 9 countries! We caught a lot of interesting species that night. Our mistnets were full of Wrinkle-lipped Bats that love feeding over wide rivers. They are the most gentle and docile of all bats that I have handled. A not-so-docile bat was the one caught in the hoop net by my Hungarian friend, Tamas Görföl – a Diadem’s Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros diadema). This is a large bat that typically hawks insects in forest clearings. Its body is a rich beige or orange with characteristic white patches on the flanks. At the harp trap we caught the Cantor’s (H. galeritus) and Fawn Leaf-nosed Bats (H. cervinus) and my favourite, the Large-eared Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus philippinensis). This is a species of dense forests. It has large leaf-shaped ears and a peculiar nose that emerges like a unicorn’s horn. Back at the base, another team had caught a pretty Spotted-winged Fruit Bat (Balionycteris maculata) – a small and timid black bat with chicken pox-like spots on its wings. The best, however, was saved for the last, the miniscule Least Woolly Bat (Kerivoula minuta) which is so tiny that when Tigga Kingston—a leading bat biologist—passed it on to me, she said, “Be careful, you’ll have to hold it like a grain of salt!” A strict inhabitant of primary forests, habitat destruction, unfortunately, has put the Least Woolly Bat in the threatened category.

The grain of salt of a bat, the Least Woolly Bat. Interestingly, this is still not the smallest bat in the world!

On the flight back to Kuching, I was reflecting on the immensely thrilling and educative days spent in Mulu. My thoughts were distracted by the sight of a bald patch in the middle of verdant rainforest. There are several threats that bats face globally. Deforestation impacts forest-dwelling bats while granite mining affects cave-roosting species. Recent studies claim that windmills kill more bats annually than anything else and more research is likely to come up with grimmer results. Our own personal attitudes that stem from superstitious beliefs and myths do not allow us to appreciate the crucial role that bats play in the ecosystem. In Southeast Asia, hunting and destruction of vast swathes of prime rainforest are the single biggest threat to bats. In recent years, ever-increasing logging and oil palm plantations have ravaged the magnificent Southeast Asian rainforests with catastrophic impacts on Orangutans, elephants, bats and even its indigenous tribes. It would be mankind’s greatest disaster if a 140 million year old rainforest were to be imperiled by our lifestyle choices and political negligence.

Leaving you a with a photo of the incredible natural phenomenon that Mulu National Park is! 🙂

Note: An edited version of this article was published in Sanctuary Asia in August 2017.

Bats in the Heart of India

Rugged cliffs of the Vindhyas at Katangi, 30km north of Jabalpur which is one of the few strongholds of the Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat

“Arre! Aap toh Discovery walon ki tarah ho! (Oh! You’re like the guys from Discovery channel!)”, my host—a distant family friend—and her friend, exclaimed in unison. Although wildlife biologists frequently hear such phrases, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t enjoying this female attention over evening tea! “Why do you go so far?” asked my host’s friend; “There are three chamgadarh (bats) right in my house!” The lady went on to describe the agony of having a room that perpetually smelled of dry urine and resonated with mouse-like squeals. Then came my well-rehearsed answer, “I’m looking for a particular prajati (species).”

It was June 2013, and I was in Jabalpur. Many might ask, why Jabalpur of all places? Firstly, having grown up as a birdwatcher in Nagpur, Central India is home turf for me. It had hurt me deeply that in my, then, three years of chasing bats I hadn’t explored this landscape. But more importantly, the name ‘Jabalpur’ comes from the Arabic word, jabal that means ‘hills’ and the Sanskrit word pur that means city. True to its name, the city is rich in geological heritage and is surrounded by hills rich in limestone and marble deposits which create a haven for cave bats. In fact, extensive surveys of bats were carried out in Jabalpur district in the 1970s by Dr. H.S. Khajuria from the Zoological Survey of India. Not only did these surveys find extraordinary bat diversity but also led to the discovery of an endemic bat. Originally described by Khajuria as a sub-species of the Least Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros cineraceus) this bat was later concluded to be a species in its own right and was thus christened the Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros durgadasi). Since its discovery nobody had ever seen this bat. From Nagpur, I was only a six-hour bus ride away from exciting prospects and I had no two thoughts about hopping into the morning bus.

I arrived in Jabalpur in the afternoon of 10th June. From Dr. Khajuria’s papers I had zeroed in on three locations from where the Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat had been recorded. My hosts—despite their indifference to my desire of seeing a nondescript bat—pampered me in the signature Punjabi spirit (read butter-loaded Aloo parathas for breakfast and chicken at night!) and generously provided me with a helper boy named Saurabh, and a bike. That evening I decided to inspect Katanga, the nearest of the three localities. During the 70’s this was a village about 8 km east of Jabalpur, but current satellite imagery showed that it is engulfed in the expanding city. On ground the situation is no better. There is a Doordarshan TV tower, an AIR station and housing societies. Just as I reached there, the last pre-monsoon shower lashed and I called it a day hoping for better weather and fortunes.

A Lesser Mouse-tailed Bat hides inside a narrow chamber because it shares the cave with hostile, carnivorous Greater False Vampires

Next morning, Saurabh rode me to Katangi, a village 33km north-west of Jabalpur at the eastern edge of the Vindhyas. This is a typical village of the Central Indian Highlands, surrounded by hills on all three sides like a peninsula; and haunted by its presence as the hills are from where an occasional reech (Sloth bear) might stray into the village. So when we asked villagers if they knew of any cave or crag, they directed us to the adjacent hill with a cautionary advice, “We saw a guldar (leopard) on the hill so if you wish to go it is entirely at your own risk.” We trekked through dense scrub and ascended the hill to walk along its slope. Patches of white-wash on the marble hills prompted me to scan the skies and a Long-billed Vulture glided past us. I checked every indentation in the granite rocks with a flashlight until I finally found a cave. It had a miniature entrance just about enough to let me through and it tunnelled 8m deep after which it widened into a large chamber. With the villagers’ caution and the sight of ruffled feathers strewn at the entrance it took me a while to muster courage to lay flat on the floor and crawl the entire length. The left corner of the wide chamber housed a large colony of approximately 50 Greater False Vampires (Megaderma lyra) and to the right were a handful of Lesser Mouse-tailed Bats (Rhinopoma hardwickii). The False Vampires are adorable bats with large bead-like eyes and long funnel-shaped ears giving the impression of flying rabbits! But they are unwelcome neighbours because of their carnivorous habits of consuming anything they can procure, including small bats. Thus their roosts are generally not shared by other bats. Perhaps for that reason, the Mouse-tailed bats hid beneath slits in the rocks.

Greater False Vampires: the sinister-looking flying bunnies. Bats of this family are unique among Indian bats in being carnivorous.

Along the same hill we encountered a large slit cave with a more vertical aspect. Here we saw more Lesser Mouse-tailed Bats and Black-bearded Tomb Bats (Taphozous melanopogon). Males of the latter species sport a characteristic black goatee. During the breeding season the beard becomes wet from a secretion of the gular sac giving the appearance of a chin smeared with coal tar! No such visible differences between the sexes are seen in Mouse-tailed bats. But both Tomb bats and Mouse-tailed bats show a peculiar behaviour of roosting in sexually segregated colonies which are most pronounced just before the onset of monsoon when the pups are weaned.

The first monsoon clouds blanket the Vindhyas at Singhorgarh. We watched this as the calls of Drongo Cuckoos resonated in the hills

We descended the hill from a dry streambed and drove further into the Vindhyas to find more sites. The road wound around the hill like a python strangulating its prey. At hairpin bends when the bike slowed down, I softly heard the tui-tiu whistle of a pitta. Crested buntings flitted across the road on several occasions. At every few kilometres the accent of the villagers became more and more Rajasthani. I tried to adapt to the situation by changing my pronunciation of gufa (cave) to goofa or guffah. And I was guffawed every time! We rode in vain to Bhaisaghat and an old fort (now in ruins) called Singhorgarh. The first monsoon clouds began to hover over the hills and the forest resonated with the ascending crescendos of Drongo cuckoos.

The next morning we went to Richhai. Yet again, satellite imagery showed a dismal change in the area since the 1970s. What was once a village is now a prime industrial area on the northern edge of the city. I felt no reason to be optimistic; however, on enquiring at a tea stall we found an awkwardly well-informed gentleman who gave us directions to a place that precisely resembled Dr. Khajuria’s description of the caves.

Cave complexes formed by boulders in Richhai, another location from where the Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat was reported in 1975. It is also home to one of the few populations of the Theobald’s Tomb Bat in India.
Probable Theobald’s Tomb Bats in Richhai. They were distinctly larger than the Black-bearded Tomb Bats that I had been seeing in all other caves.

Richhai turned out to be one of the most interesting cave complexes that I’ve seen in mainland India. It is a hillock formed by large boulders placed in a random order that have created a labyrinth of interconnected caves beneath them. Such boulder cave complexes are gruelling to survey because of the complex topography. In two hours I had only managed to scan a quarter of the hillock. In general, large cave chambers housed mixed maternity colonies of Black-bearded Tomb Bats and Lesser Mouse-tailed Bats while smaller chambers were occupied by juveniles of the previous year of the former species. Just before heading downhill, I saw a small colony of tomb bats with four females carrying pups and some juveniles of the previous year. The females were notably larger than the countless Black-bearded Tomb Bats that I had seen in the previous two days. Other morphological characters like the extent of fur on the body and pelage colour also indicated that I was possibly looking at the rare Theobald’s Tomb Bats (Taphozous theobaldi). This enigmatic species is widely distributed across South and Southeast Asia. It is known from only four sites in India including Richhai; Khandesh, Bhimgad caves of North Karnataka, and Kerala. The Theobald’s Tomb Bat is poorly known throughout its range. Despite searching intensively, I couldn’t find any leaf-nosed bats, or any narrow, tunnel-like chambers that are the kind of caves they typically roost in. I said the words that Saurabh dreaded the most, “Chalo, phir Katangi chalein (Come, let’s go back to Katangi)”

A probable Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat at Katangi. I had absolutely no chance of catching this bat inside the narrow crevice it was roosting in and confirm its identity.

In half an hour, in the peak of afternoon, we were in Katangi. I had a gut feeling that among the tiny cracks and crevices I had probably missed an important cave. I paced up the same cliff face that I had climbed the previous day and restarted my search. Sure enough, there was a slit in the rocks that I hadn’t seen earlier. It was a paper-thin indentation full of cracked granite and marble in which a lone bat fluttered. When it settled, I clicked a few pictures and it was indeed a leaf-nosed bat! Unfortunately, these bats can’t be identified without measuring and there was simply no way to net this individual. I just stood there staring at what just may have been the first Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat to be seen since its discovery in 1975.

On my way back to Nagpur that evening, the first monsoon shower lashed the tranquil Pench-Kanha corridor. Little did I know, a year later in 2014, this stretch of forest—the most important tiger corridor in the world—would be doomed for insignificant developmental gains. Similarly, habitats of bats are lost routinely to mining companies, land developers or for unplanned archaeological priorities. The only difference between the two situations is that in the latter, nobody has an inkling that a prime habitat has been lost. Fortunately, the last few years have only brought cheers to the Khajuria’s Bat. A team of researchers discovered a new population in Kolar district of Karnataka. The same team also confirmed its presence in Katangi. It is remarkable that despite developmental pressures, Katangi and Richhai have stood the test of time. I end with the hope that this piece reminds us that many rare species of bats exist outside protected areas in habitats that are extremely vulnerable. Protecting such habitats as safe havens for bats and their co-inhabitants would greatly enhance the health and worth of ‘The Heart of India’.

Leaving you with a photo of a younger me and Saurabh. I have no clue what this dude is up to in life. I just hope he remembers that there was once a guy who kept him away from his girlfriend for two days to search for bats! 🙂

Note: A modified version of the article was published as ‘Searching for Bats in the Heart of India’ in Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s coffee table book, ‘Wild Madhya Pradesh’.

Bats in the Land of Gods

The Tons River–teeming with redstarts and dippers–as it flows through the outskirts of Dehradun. The white houses on the hills in the background is Jharipani where the Peter’s Tube-nosed Bat was discovered by Captain Hutton in the 1870s.

“Chamgadarh? Woh toh yahan nahi hote” (Bats? You don’t get bats here), said a villager in a matter-of-fact way. His friend added scientifically, “Yahan toh thand kaafi hoti hai. Thande ilaakon mein chamkadarh nahi hote” (It gets quite cold here. Bats don’t occur in cold places). I was in a quaint Garhwali village near Dehra Dun. I had already spent a week without getting any substantial information. It was late February but the light winter chill meant that bats were still not as active as was expected. I looked at the naïve face of my field assistant, Zareef Khan – a hardworking Gujjar boy from around Rajaji National Park. He hadn’t seen a single bat since he started working with me. I wondered if he thought he’d rather find a Yeti than a figment of my imagination. Dwarfed by the hills, I looked around in awe and frustration; the undulating shrub-covered hills, the turquoise Song river and the redstarts flitting on its stones seemed to be asking sarcastically, “Who on earth gave you this bright idea of studying bats in the Himalayas?”

Who wouldn’t want to study bats in Uttarakhand? It’s interesting in more ways than one. Uttarakhand has a great diversity of habitats which corresponds to the vast gradient of elevation. The foothills are dominated by sal forests, and as one goes higher the vegetation changes – in ascending order – to forests of pine, oak mixed with rhododendrons, deodar, fir and spruce. This diversity of habitats enhances the biodiversity of the hills. On account of its geographical position, Uttarakhand sits at a point where species assemblages from Europe, the Far East and peninsular India meet. However, the most important reason that very few people know about is that Uttarakhand is home to one of the rarest bats in India – the Peters’ Tube-nosed Bat (Harpiola grisea). This species was first discovered in 1872 by German biologist, Dr. W. Peters from a specimen collected by Captain Hutton in Jharipani (Jeripanee in colonial literature) near Mussoorie. However, it became lost as soon as it was found. There were appallingly few bat surveys in the 20th Century in Uttarakhand and all of them failed to find the Peters’ Bat. With no records for more than 100 years and the deteriorating quality of its habitat (especially in Mussoorie), doubts were raised if the species was extinct, when in 2002 a team of Zoological Survey of India scientists rediscovered the Peters’ Bat—not in Uttarakhand but—across the country in Mizoram! No sightings since then, the Peters’ Bat remains as enigmatic as ever. Its status, especially in Uttarakhand, is anybody’s guess.

The Great Himalayan Leaf-nosed Bat: this robust bat with a bulldog’s face is the largest insectivorous bat in India. One of the first species that we caught.

With this background I set off to explore the hills of Garhwal to create an inventory of bats and their ultrasound calls (which are species-specific). I started my work around Dehradun. After a frustrating first week my luck took a turn for the better after my friend, Bhaskar Bora interrogated all his local friends and dug out information about a cave roughly 30 km from Dehradun. We caught the largest insectivorous bat of India there – the Great Himalayan Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros armiger). This bat has a thickset face and carries a grumpy expression resembling that of a bull dog! My mistnet captures started getting better due to a combination of gradually warming weather and increasing familiarity with the terrain. Zareef and I set nets up every night at placid, shallow and secluded parts of the many rivers that flow into Dehradun. The results were highly encouraging. In just five nights we had caught 15 species of bats; three-fourths of these were new to me (or ‘lifers’ as we call them in birding parlance). There were two interesting Eurasian species, the Common Noctule (Nyctalus noctula) and the Leisler’s Bat, or simply, Lesser Noctule (Nyctalus leisleri). These are among the most common bats in Europe but are restricted only to the Western Himalayas in India. On our last night of netting at Dehradun we went to a fabulous and isolated gorge. A Rock Eagle-Owl flew off angrily, disturbed by our presence. A Himalayan Palm Civet—inquisitive as ever—paused briefly to check what we were up to. I looked around at the steep slopes that surrounded us and whispered to Zareef that it seems like a suitable habitat for catching free-tailed bats. Zareef and I checked our nets fifteen minutes after dusk and were sent into the panic that a mother experiences on seeing her kid cross a road! The nets were full of European Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida teniotis), a species that had only been reported from three other locations in India! Excitement replaced our panic as I learnt that ours was the first record from Western Himalayas. These free-tailed bats are peculiar animals with ears that come up and ahead of the face. They also have a shrew-like tail. Their body is marked by a characteristic, pungent, musky odour. At hand, they are the most docile of all bats. The real fun, however, is to release them after all the data are collected. Free-tailed bats are the swifts of the bat world. Their long and pointed wings do not allow them to get enough lift for taking off if dropped from a height of six feet. Even if you open your palm and coax them to fly they would refuse to take off. So the only way to make them fly is to throw them up in the air! In four hours we had caught well over 30 individuals – which meant more than 15 high-throw competitions between Zareef and myself!

Give wings and large ears to a shrew and you get a European Free-tailed Bat!

After our success at the foothills we were ready to move to the next difficulty level where the terrain was rough and rugged, and forests transformed into splendid combinations of oak, pine, rhododendron and deodar. Mussoorie is honestly not quite the ‘Queen of the Hills’. Unabated development and boisterous tourists have reduced this once-harmonious town to a sinkhole. Landour, however, is the place that I hold in high regards. Despite human pressures there are still fragments of quality oak forest, more than of half of which lies in the property of Woodstock School. The school gladly allowed me to work inside their property with great results. As an aside, Landour also has some fine cafes and bakeries. On a related note, you might even meet some bats at the cafes while enjoying a meal that is more than luxurious during field days! One evening, I was chatting with Virender Singh Pawar, the award-winning naturalist of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve when we spotted a group of bats gracefully gliding and hawking moths resting on the window of an uptown café. The manager was a nice man and having remembered me from a previous dinner at the restaurant, he knew that I wasn’t a freeloader when I sought his permission to catch bats from their window. However, he asked us to wait until the guests had left for he feared that they might abandon their dinner and the café altogether at the sight of a bat. Once the guests had left, it took only three sweeps with a modified butterfly net to net one of the bats. It was an adorable Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis).

Indian Barbastelle: a bat that wears sunglasses as earphones! Photo credit: Ram Mohan

The most tranquil part of Mussoorie lies roughly 10 km west of the library on the road to Kempty Falls. This is Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, the erstwhile home of two legends of Uttarakhand – Sir George Everest and Himalayan Quail! My expectations were raised as soon as I stepped here; a pair of flamboyant Long-tailed Broadbills was nesting right at our doorstep! The same night we put up a mistnet at a brook in a wonderful oak forest. We trapped until 1 am and caught seven species, including my second favourite, the Indian Barbastelle (Barbastella darjelingensis). Barbastelles are probably the oddest among the Old World bats. They are a dark sooty-black in colour and their ears face exactly forwards, just like our eyes!

A pretty Rhododendron arboreum along a stream. Rhododendrons, locally called Buransh, add more than just glamour in the landscape. The flowers are used to produce a refreshing Roohafza like juice. As for the streams, they serve as important habitats for the Kashmir Cave Bat (Myotis longipes): an endemic stream-dwelling species.

Two weeks later we cut across the Devbhoomi, following the Ganga in her majestic form and the furious Alakananda to reach our destination. Mandal valley situated at 1600 m in the lap of Kedarnath is as idyllic as I had imagined. It is best described as a scene straight out of our clichéd childhood drawings of ‘A Scenery’! Mandal is the gateway to Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary where I spent my best days and nights trapping bats and watching wildlife. From 1500-3000 m we netted at various habitats catching an assortment of common and rare bats. The first breakthrough came when we noticed an unusual habitat at 2500 m. It was a neat clearing in the middle of relatively undisturbed broadleaved forest and my intuition told me that something interesting might try and cross the clearing and get caught if we placed a net across it. I didn’t have any species in mind, nor was I greatly expectant. We hadn’t caught anything until 11 pm and the persistent hoots of the Mountain Scops Owl were turning into a lullaby. Just when we decided to pack-up I spotted a tiny leaf-like object wriggling in the mistnet and rushed to remove it. It was a small bat, densely covered in golden-yellow hair like a Yeti. Then I checked the face clearly and its tube-like, bifurcating nostrils gave away its identity. It was a Little Tube-nosed Bat (Murina aurata) – a new record for Uttarakhand and also the first tube-nosed bat that I had seen in my life! After this we caught three other species of tube-nosed bats (but not the rare Peter’s Tube-nosed!) from other parts of the state and two of them were new records. These fascinating bats are strict forest dwellers and hence important indicator species. The next night we finally caught my favourite bat. At 3000 m, we found a serene brook lined by rhododendrons at the intersection of sub-alpine forests and alpine meadows (bugyal). Just an hour ago, we had startled the elusive Himalayan Musk Deer that hopped out the brook and stared at us for a while before darting away. We had also accidentally flushed the cryptic Eurasian Woodcock while setting up our net. I knew luck was on our side. At 9.30 pm, we caught the much anticipated Kashmir Long-eared Bat (Plecotus wardi). This is the cutest bat that I have had the privilege of seeing. Its beady eyes and large ears that are nearly the size of its body can sink the heart of the worst of bat haters! Data be gone, I just wanted to sit and marvel at that wonderful bat.

Ending with my favourite bat from my study area: Kashmir Long-eared Bat. Its ears are nearly as long as its body!

I am often asked why I decided to study bats. An honest answer is that I wanted to avoid competition from other wildlife scientists. But the larger answer is one that cannot be explained; it must be felt. It is the sense of exploration, of which Uttarakhand was a testimony. The hills, the darkness of the night and the inherent elusiveness of bats shrouded them in a three-layered veil. Five months and more than 30 species later, we managed to unravel some of their mysteries which will now serve as baseline information to address critical questions about the interactions of these enigmatic nocturnal wonders and their mystical land.

Leaving you with this photo of Zareef testing his new phone camera on a bat we caught at Devalsari.

Note: An edited version of this article was published in Live Mint in May 2017 (https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/ykDjfdBV3KEYYRIcrWhsGK/The-Chamgadarhs-of-Devbhoomi.html).

About a rendezvous

The soft, penetrating call of the Puff-throated babbler was audible over the thudding of our car on the stony dirt-track. Four of us—my brother Rohan, my classmate Rakesh, our mutual friend Prajakta and I—were driving through Melghat Tiger Reserve in the silent contentment of a splendid sighting. I finally broke the silence with a recollection.

 

“Its hoot is beautiful, almost as if somebody’s calling out to you.” It was a plaintive call with a resonant quality; the kind that Naxalite troops would use to communicate in forests. When I first heard that call without seeing the bird, I thought it was our guide, Bhola calling for us. But when the birds showed up we saw them perform a duet for half an hour. One bird hooted while the other chattered. The chatter was similar in tone to that of the Spotted Owlet. But the chattering of a Spotted Owlet is as raucous as a jeering mob of gangsters. This sounded more like sophisticated laughter at the dinner table!

 

“But the most striking feature is that white collar”, said Rohan. “And the white eyebrows”, Prajakta added. In its overall dark plumage, these are essential elements to delineate the face and house its sparkling eyes in the correct location. The eyebrows in Rohan’s words are eyebrows of a wise Kung-Fu master! “But have you noticed the head?” I asked. “When it looks at you inquisitively, the head appears so flat. You could have a meal on it!”

 

“We must not forget to acknowledge Rakesh’s excellent spotting skills and his composure. He never let the excitement show on his face” I said. “Like Dhoni!” remarked Rohan. It was an open teak forest lined by paddy fields. Four of us and Bhola were stationed at different positions to catch any suspecting glimpse. While gazing leisurely, I saw Rakesh gesturing to me to walk slowly towards him. He was impassive. I have known Rakesh for only two years but together we have trekked the hills of Kerala and have been dive partners underwater in the Andaman Sea. I know that when he gestures in this manner, it is something important. I looked through my binoculars at a figure just darker than the pale overcast sky. My eyes widened; but my own close experiences with Oriental dwarf kingfishers in Mumbai have taught me the hard skill of containing your ecstasy lest you lose the very source of it. I signalled to Rohan and Prajakta to come. Rohan whispered to me, “What is it?” I re-checked with my binoculars just to be sure that it was indeed good news that I had to tell. ”Forest Owlet”, I replied.

P1040730
The Forest Owlet with its wise eyebrows, flat head and white collar.

P1040743
The Forest Owlet becomes alert and puffs its throat to let a plaintive call out to its mate.

 

Note: Written in August 2014.

eBird checklist here

 

 

The Bat that Saved a Forest

 

“You should read the way the British went to discover this bat in 1913…” said my companion Rahul Khanolkar, “On a bullock-cart!” he continued as he deftly avoided a small ditch on the boulder-strewn road. 24 hours ago, I was lamenting over a failed permit application. 18 hours ago, I explained my work to the Deputy RFOs and Forest guards. They acknowledged me saying, “This is the first time we’re reading an application to work on bats!” After further discussion and negotiation with the RFO, I was excited to be on a bike with Rahul, retracing the path that the British took exactly a century ago in search of this fascinating bat.

 

Wroughton's Free-tailed Bats (Otomops wroughtonii)_RohitChakravarty
Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bats at Barapede Caves, Bhimgad

The Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat (Otomops wroughtonii) is a handsome bat dressed in judicial colours: black coat with a white neck-tie. Discovered in 1913, for over 90 years this bat was not reported from any cave other than Barapede caves in Belgaum district of Karnataka. In 2001, bat biologists Paul Bates and Adora Thabah mist-netted a foraging individual near Siju caves in Meghalaya. Subsequently another individual was netted further eastwards in Cambodia. The erstwhile critically-endangered species then got elevated (or demoted?) to a data-deficient status under the IUCN Red List. Since then, however, repeated efforts to find its populations in Northeast India and Southeast Asia proved futile. It was only a year ago that scientists, in collaboration with recreational cavers, were successful in discovering a population of bats in the Siju-Balpakhram landscape of Meghalaya.

 

 

We reached Barapede caves at noon. Our objective till dusk was to make

Lesser False Vampires (Megaderma spasma) at Barapede_RohitChakravarty
A handful of Lesser False Vampires keep the Wroughton’s bats company in the Barapede Caves

preliminary observations on the Wroughton’s bats like colony strength, group size, roosting behavior, response to human presence and diversity and abundance of coexisting species; followed by a brief reconnaissance of the surrounding landscape. We observed that the Wroughton’s bats roost within rugged indentations on the roof of the cave in clumps ranging from 7-40 individuals. In an allied African species the Large-eared Free-tailed Bats (Otomops martiensseni) these groups are known to be colonies of one to two males with their harem of females and dependent young from the previous litter. Though this seems plausible, the social structure in Wroughton’s bats requires validation. We identified seven such groups within the cave with an estimated strength of up to 200 individuals. Two other species—the Lesser False Vampire (Megaderma spasma) and Rufous Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus rouxii)—were also found roosting in the cave. Early records mention that the Wroughton’s bats immediately take-off when disturbed. However, we saw that these bats rarely fly. On almost all the occasions when the bats were shone with a flashlight they started crawling over each other. And unlike the Lesser False Vampires and Rufous Horseshoe Bats these bats did not produce any audible social calls.

View from Barapede_RohitChakravarty
The sun descends behind the hills of Goa and the Mhadei valley sinks half-way down this image while Rahul and I watch the scene from atop the Barapede Caves.

After noting down our observations, Rahul and I came out of the cave to check the surrounding habitat. The caves are set at an elevation of 800m atop a lateritic plateau. Lateritic plateaus are characteristic of high rainfall areas in northern Western Ghats where dense hill forests terminate into flat grasslands interspersed with bare lateritic rocks at higher elevations. As the sun began to sink beyond the hills of Goa, Rahul gave me a thorough overview of the history and geography of the landscape. His familiarity with these hills, his love for the wilderness was evident in the way he spoke of them. On one side of the cave lies Talewadi village which was the proposed site for iron ore mining. On the other side are the sprawling hills of Mollem National Park and Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, dissected by the slithering Mhadei River.

Coming back to the story of this landscape, much of the last two decades was a period of lows for this forest, until then not known by any official designation but called ‘Bhimgad’ after an old heritage fort of Shivaji situated in the Mhadei basin. Illegal tree-felling and conversion of forest land for agriculture became rampant. Threat loomed large when mining operations commenced in this iron-rich belt with one of the epicenters in Talewadi. Amidst all these dark clouds, the only ray of hope—a petition filed in 2003, by a local environmentalist, Mr. Durgesh Kasbekar to declare Bhimgad a wildlife sanctuary—was gathering dust in judicial shelves. To make matters worse, here tigers existed on ground but not on paper (unlike Sariska where tigers did not exist on ground, but were plentiful on paper!). The state government remained adamant that only nomadic tigers were sporadically seen in this part of Karnataka. In spite of Bhimgad’s rich biodiversity, the apparent lack of the supreme umbrella species prevented its protection. It was time to pass the baton to a new flagship species—the Wroughton’s bat. Like the lions of Gir, this bat was then known to occur in only one cave in the whole world! Suddenly, all news about Bhimgad went with a special mention of the bat’s rare existence in these forests. For the first time in the Indian conservation movement, a bat had been given centre-stage. It took a while; a unification among national and international NGOs fighting for a cause, and even a change in governance until in 2009, the movement to protect Bhimgad started gaining momentum. Finally, in 2011, then Deputy Conservator of Forests, Girish Hosur brought home the good news that a 200 sq.km. Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) was declared. This protected area is now contiguous with the Mhadei WLS, Bhagwan-Mahaveer WLS, Mollem National Park (NP) and Netravali WLS in Goa, Radhanagri WLS in Maharashtra and Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Evidently, it is a vital tiger corridor and also a critical river basin. Every environmentalist from north Karnataka and Goa would tell you how significant a battle was won. In this game of cards, a bat had played the trump.

BhimgadWLS_RohitChakravarty
Where else in India would you see a caricatured bat (even if it’s the wrong bat!) welcoming you to a wildlife sanctuary?

“But we still don’t know anything beyond what we knew in 1913”, said Rahul as we were riding back to Belgaum. He is right. In spite of being discovered a century ago, there is precious little that we know about the Wroughton’s bat. What do the bats eat? How is the society structured? Where do the young ones disperse during / after breeding? Is the population increasing or declining? And above all, how do all of these link to devising proactive conservation measures? These and several other questions await answers; but for now, perhaps we can sit back and cherish a hundred years of acquaintance with the bat that saved a forest.

 

Note: An edited version of this article was published on Nature in Focus in January 2018.

P.S. This article was originally written in May 2013. The events described in the article happened during the later days of my schooling which were also the earliest days of my interest in wildlife. The chronicles of the conservation story of Bhimgad are likely to have some gaps and I’ll be happy to have those pointed out.

Blah Ka Nas: The Island Bats

Sailing through the mangroves_HavelockNovember 2013. After two failed attempts by our young boatman, Saw Isaac, my Karen (a community from southern Myanmar) field assistant, pulled the string and the engine rattled like a machine gun rising in crescendo. Our dungi (a local boat) was on its way through the dense mangrove forest. Perched on its bow with Isaac, I leisurely scanned the mangroves for an unwarily rambling rail or a kingfisher darting across the creek. Reminiscent of the roots of an old tree, the creek widened into channel after channel. The creek then opened into the sea where a short drizzle had created a rainbow leading the sky to the sea. The opening of a creek and a rainbow plunging into the sea are unsung natural phenomena, unlike the sun setting behind rolling hills or a mountain peak emerging from a sea of clouds. “What do you call a bat in Karen?” I asked Isaac. In the usual singsong tone of Karen, he replied, “Blah ka na”.

andaman_map2_labels
My adventure of three months in a map. The blue markers represent my sampling locations.

I was in the Andaman Islands and bats were my pursuit. The masters program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) gave me the opportunity to travel to the islands for my dissertation project. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET) headed by Tasneem Khan, played hospitable hosts and provided

every bit of support. Islands, due to their isolation, are natural laboratories for studying ecology and evolution. Bats are an interesting subject in an insular context because of their ability to fly which aids them in colonizing islands from adjacent mainlands. It is estimated that about 60% of all bat species live on islands. I was interested in investigating the level of gene flow among populations of different species of bats on separate islands. If explained without jargon, this simply means to understand how often different species of bats actually move between islands and mate. To ascertain this one needs DNA samples (a 4mm wing tissue in the case of bats) from individuals on each island. DNA is extracted from these samples and analysed for similarity or dissimilarity. The more similar the DNA is between individuals from two islands, the higher the level of gene flow between them. In terms of field work this meant that I had three months to travel all across the islands, catch (and release) several species of bats and work with various kinds of people. My excitement put science in the backdrop!

 

Mistnetting with the master

Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sphinx)_Wandoor
Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sphinx) from Wandoor. Isaac and my first night out netting.

Isaac and I spent our mornings searching for sites to erect mistnets (very fine nylon nets used for catching birds and bats for scientific purposes), combing tree holes and enquiring about caves. At the stroke of dusk we began mistnetting. Isaac was an extremely proficient mistnetter. He set nets up and released bats unharmed in record-breaking speeds. Our main quarry was the Greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) which we used to catch by erecting nets at Sapota trees, ripe banana flowers and other seasonal fruits. As the first bat gets caught in the mistnet, it emits a jarring, nasal distress call that directs its compatriots to fall into the net one by one. When Isaac noticed this he started sitting next to the net and quite accurately, mimicked the distress call of the bat by rubbing his index finger incessantly against his lips and whistling. A bat getting caught, even if by chance, and not in response to his imitation, would give Isaac further encouragement to resume his mimicry; thereby subjecting me to two continuously-ringing peevish sounds! The smaller cousin of the Short-nosed fruit bat, the Lesser dog-faced bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) was less commonly seen. It appears to be a species of forest edges unlike the Short-nosed bat which closely associates with human habitation. Superficially, the Dog-faced bat resembles a juvenile Short-nosed bat but with experience of handling its semblance will tell you that it isn’t one. Its distress call is also more whirry and less metallic than that of its congener.

 

Another reason behind Isaac’s success with mistnets was his ability to

Lesser False Vampire (Megaderma spasma)_Havelock
Lesser False Vampire (Megaderma spasma) from Havelock.

think like a bat. I particularly remember the time in Little Anda
man when we had two consecutive unsuccessful nights at the choicest banana plantations. Then Isaac suggested that if the bats aren’t interested in eating, they should surely sip water. We erected a mistnet along a stream and in two hours we netted 21 bats of four species! Two Short-nosed bats which followed each other into the net had extensive white spots on their face and upper back and looked diseased (Isaac, whose medical vocab
ulary is limited, asked me if they had polio!). When Isaac dusted the bats gently we realized that they were in fact draped with the pollen of an unidentified flower!

 

At the end of three months, Isaac and I had netted more than a hundred bats belonging to eight species.

 

Of caves and cave bats

Dawn Bats (Eonycteris spelaea)_Baratang
High-walled limestone caves, thousands of Dawn Bats and twice the amount of guano showered per second!

The Andaman Islands have some of the most magnificent caves in the country. The finest of these are to be found in Ramnagar in North Andaman. The caves of Ramnagar are based on a limestone hill and were the first study site established by the late Dr. Ravi Sankaran to study the fascinating Edible-nest swiftlet. These caves are known by many names- Alfred Caves to tourists, Pattilevel to locals and Chalis Ek to researchers. Chalis Ek, as the name suggests is a complex of 41 caves. Cyclones and heavy rainfall have caused some caverns to collapse and 28 caves now survive. The hill is like an apartment designed by a drunken architect. Trails lead to nowhere and caves suddenly lead to dead ends. For the adventure, Chalis Ek is the best cave complex I have ever explored. But for aesthetic pleasure, the caves of Rafter’s Creek are unmatched. This is a massive karst of 192 caves spread across the south of Baratang Island. There are caves of all shapes and sizes- some like tunnels, some like large slits and some like potholes. The most grandiose, though, are the high-walled caves, the colour of sandstone; intricately patterned and naturally ornamented with stalactites and stalagmites. Bats and swiftlets abound here by the thousands.

 

The most abundant cave bats of the Andaman Islands are Dobson’s horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus yunanensis) and Anderson’s leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros pomona). They prefer narrow, cloistered, tunnel-like caves. The largest colonies are found in the caves of Chalis Ek. There is generally a lot of colour variation in horseshoe and leaf-nosed bats. Even within the same cave individuals may span all shades from grey (commonest) to orange (rarest). In a Japanese World War bunker in Havelock we once saw a colony full of orange-coloured leaf-nosed bats resembling a mob of Dutch football fans!

 

However, the most prominent cave bats in the islands are Dawn bats (Eonycteris spelaea). This is a nectar-feeding bat, larger in size than the Short-nosed fruit bat and it roosts in expansive and noisy colonies. Caves occupied by these bats are also marked by the most disagreeable odour of dry urine which later helped us identify their caves from several metres away. When we netted this bat for the first time in a cave on the west coast of Interview Island, I told Isaac that it is called ‘Dawn bat’. He looked at the enormous genitals of the male bat and proclaimed how justified scientists were in naming it ‘Don bat’!

andaman-horseshoe-bat
The endemic Andaman Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus cognatus) from Baratang. Incidentally this is the first documentation of this species.

There was one bat; the most prized of all, which had eluded me for three months, until the last day of my field season when we were searching for leaf-nosed bats and Black-bearded tomb bats (Taphozous melanopogon) in Baratang. By late January, we were already delayed past our deadline and time was running out. Paul Kullu, our local guide, who knows Rafter’s Creek like the back of his palm showed us cave after cave. When we eventually chanced upon a small colony of leaf-nosed bats, Isaac immediately netted a handful. I began measuring the bats and ordered Isaac to get some tomb bats. In a few minutes, he returned and told me that he had caught some tomb bats and another “model” (his term for species) – a small horseshoe which we hadn’t yet seen. I excitedly pulled a bat out of the net. It was half the size of a Dobson’s horseshoe. The noseleaf was distinct. Unmistakable! I was holding the endemic Andaman horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus cognatus). Before measuring and releasing the bat we clicked a few photographs which later made it to ARKive earning us the distinction of having the first photographic documentation of this species!

 

Cast away

Curios from the beach_Rutland
A market of curios set up at the beach of an uninhabited island by us. The small football to the left returned with me to the mainland. Isaac kept the rest with him.

It is every biologist’s dream to camp in isolated islands. I feel fortunate to have done that a few times (and more fortunate to have survived to tell the tale!). My first camping experience went awry when we were caught in the approaching cyclone Phailin off Interview Island. This was in stark contrast to my next adventure in the secluded north-east of Rutland. We camped on an abandoned jetty in a picturesque moonlit night, listening to the whisper of the ebbing tide and watching the glint of a distant lighthouse. Some of the beaches that face the open ocean receive plentiful trash from the sea. Mineral water bottles (we counted bottles from 12 countries!), cosmetics, footwear and even furniture from far-off lands serve to remind that you can isolate yourself from people but not from a world of humans! But for the islanders these are shopping markets. Isaac and I spent a lot of time collecting curios from beaches. A Bayern Munich football of original Adidas make from Rutland, a fancy Filipino beer bottle from Interview Island and a pair of Thai slippers from Little Andaman returned with me to the mainland as souvenirs from the islands.

Forest and beach_Little Andaman
Beach and mohwa forest: a sight unique to the Andaman Islands.

February 2014. Back in the lab in Bangalore, I removed the first set of samples for DNA extraction. The sample label read WA-01. I was reminded of the first bat, a Short-nosed fruit bat, I caught in the islands. Next came WA-15, a very old male of the same species. Isaac jokingly remarked about his age and associated virility that we had only been catching his grandchildren all over Wandoor! HA-22; one of the three Lesser false vampires (Megaderma spasma) that we caught after intensively searching tree holes in a hill at Havelock. IN-54; the north shore of Interview Island which is rocky and where anchoring is unsafe, we caught this Anderson’s leaf-nosed by swimming to the seashore cave. RU-33; a Horsfield’s bat (Myotis horsfieldii) that was mistnetted at a forest stream while camping in Rutland. We returned to the camp not only with its sample, but also with a handful of prawns for dinner!

3 months, 90 days, 400 samples and countless memories!

P1040388
Isaac entertaining while I process a Black-bearded Tomb Bat. Little Andaman, January 2014.

Note: An edited version of this article was originally published in Saevus, November 2014.