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