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To the batcave: A visit to Samal Island's world record-holding bat colony

The Island Garden City of Samal in Davao del Norte is home to around 90,000 people—and millions of bats. An enormous colony of Old World fruit bats known as Geoffroy’s Rousettes can be found in a 23-hectare protected area on a property in barangay Tambo, Babak District, and has drawn both tourists and the Guinness Book of World Records to the island. “I have never seen such an immense number of bats,” says visitor Roy Alimoane. “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.” The 1,000-foot-long Monfort Bat Cave is home to about 2.4 million bats. It made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 as the largest colony of Geoffroy’s Rousettes in the world. The bats used to be more widespread on the island.
Samal Island, Davao del Norte is home to millions of bats.
“Samal has about 70 caves, which used to be inhabited by these fruit bats,” says Norma Monfort, founder and president of the Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation Foundation and owner of the property that the cave is part of. “Unfortunately, most of these caves are now empty due to irresponsible hunting and destruction of their habitats.” Had it not been for the conservation efforts of Monfort and her fellow Samal residents, together with the support of the local city government and several key organizations, the colonies might have been totally wiped out. Bat baby boom 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, and including the world’s largest and smallest bats: the giant golden-crowned flying fox fruit bat and the lesser bamboo bat, respectively. The most recently discovered bat species, the stripe-faced fruit bat, was discovered in Mindoro Island in 2007. Experts believe that 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. Samal’s Geoffroy’s Rousettes are even credited for the abundance of durian trees in nearby Davao City. Fruit bats are also a good source of guano, one of Mother Nature’s most effective natural fertilizers. According to Monfort, a kilo of guano can fetch a price of US$200! In January 2011, an American cave-mapping expedition stumbled upon an unusually high number of pregnant bats in the Monfort bat colony. The 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, said Monfort. The cause of the high number of bat births is unknown. However, Monfort suspects one factor may be that the cave is protected from humans as an ecotourism site.
One of the entrances of Monfort cave, lined with bats
With the growing bat population in the cave, Monfort is thinking of putting up a “chiroptorium,” or an artificial bat cave for interactive viewing of both visitors and researchers. “The goal is for the bats to transfer to help relieve the tension of being so overly populated,” she said. Babak also holds the Babak Bat Festival every last week of January. Among the activities regularly held during the week-long celebration are a sports competition, a cultural night, cave management training, and a bat research design workshop. - BM, GMA News Getting to Samal Island: From Davao City, take the bus to Samal Island and get off at Babak. From Babak, take a single motorcycle (locally known as habal-habal) to barangay Tambo where Monfort Bat Cave is located. Don’t worry; all Samal folks and habal-habal drivers know the place.