Thai Adventures Part 2: Flying Foxes

1/21/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Several hours after leaving the painted bat village, we arrived at the Wat Chantaram, Buddhist temple, in Ang Thong province. The monks protect Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in the courtyard. We explained the ecology and diet of the species and how the group should approach the colony to minimize disturbance. Slowly approached, most of the bats remained calm allowing us to watch them grooming as they prepared to depart for the evening. The bats steadily increased their activity and their chattering became louder as they started to fly out in all directions, leaving the temple grounds in search of fruiting or flowering trees. As the bats were leaving, we could hear the monks chanting inside the temple providing a magical backdrop to the evening.

Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in Jantraram Temple courtyard, protected by monks in Thailand.

The following morning, we headed to Bang Pahan village in search of a second Lyle’s flying fox camp (a colony roosting site). The bats had set up camp alongside the river and after several attempts we discovered a spot where we could get closer.

Our focus was on photographing these roughly four-foot wingspan bats as they flew among roost trees. These weren’t as well protected, and something had made them nervous. They had a right to be, as some had wing membranes were perforated with holes from apparent shotgun pellets. Our group looked in awe as hundreds of these flying giants took to the sky, moving farther along the river.

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Thai Adventures Part 1: Painted Bats

1/24/20

By Daniel Hargreaves

Following a 6-hour road journey from Bangkok we arrived at our first destination, the painted bat village. With only two hours left before sunset, we split into two teams. One assisted Merlin with setting up the flight studio. The other went to find a painted bat to photograph in the studio that evening. Team two headed out in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors. They quickly spit into small groups furiously searching the dried leaves of banana plants for bats. 

Riding in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors to find painted bats.

It wasn’t long before we found a single male painted bat (Kerivoula picta) hanging in a dried leaf about a meter from the ground. The bat had been banded for research, so although a good candidate, we didn’t disturb him and continued our search for more. Less than 200 meters away we found another male this time without a band. We quickly checked his weight at 4.6 grams (less than the weight of a U.S. nickel) and decided he was a perfect candidate for flight cage training.

This one was carefully placed in a soft bag, and to ensure picture and set authenticity we took the bat and the leaf he was roosting in back to the village. (There was no shortage of such leaves.) Leanne Townsend balanced precariously on the back of a moped, holding the bat and set material, as it sped to the village in order to setup for the night’s photography. As our Thai hosts prepared a banquet for their guests, Merlin got to work on the set, helped by an enthusiastic group of members fascinated to watch the master at work. As soon as the set was ready, we fed and watered the little star and released him into the studio. The group looked on as his shallow wing beats resembled that of a butterfly. He investigated every corner of the studio until he was sure there was no easy escape, then entered his now relocated roost.

Photo: Daniel Hargreaves
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Loss of Nectar Bats Threatens Durian Farmers

 

A Cave Nectar Bat pollinating durian flowers
A Cave Nectar Bat pollinating durian flowers

The story of Cave Nectar Bats’ contributions and requirements is complex and only beginning to be fully understood. These bats traditionally formed huge colonies in caves, 100,000 individuals in a single cave. However colonies are extremely vulnerable, and few large colonies remain. People commonly set nets over cave entrances, capturing large numbers to be eaten as a delicacy. Also, limestone quarries pose constant threats of permanent destruction of essential caves, and durian growers themselves sometimes kill large numbers.

 

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Documenting Billion-Dollar Bats

Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.
Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.

 

Dr. Sara Bumrungsri, a leading bat ecologist, invited us to help document the essential roles of Cave Nectar Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) in pollinating some of SE Asia’s most ecologically and economically valuable plants near Hat Yai in Thailand’s Songkhla Province. We set up our bat photo studio in Sara’s lab at the Prince of Songkhla University, caught two cave nectar bats in mist nets set beneath durian flowers in an orchard, tamed them so they would go about their normal activities in Merlin’s enclosure, then brought them fresh flowers so he could photographically document their importance as pollinators.

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Thai Temple Flying Fox Photography

Lyle’s flying fox and pup

Large flying foxes are always difficult to photograph, especially since they’re intensively hunted over their range. But in Thailand there are still several colonies of Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) that are protected by Buddhist monks. The bats have learned that they are safe when close to the monks’ quarters. And by also remaining close to the monks’ quarters we were able to photograph them much closer than usual, though it still required a great deal of searching for just the right individuals.

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Khao Chong Pran’s Bat Economics

Poachers were killing huge numbers of Khao Chong Pran’s bats and selling them to restaurants until guards were hired to protect the bats. In Thailand bats were killed for the restaurant trade before a law made it illegal.

The Buddhist temple at Khao Chong Pran is said to have been built largely from guano fertilizer sales. When Merlin first visited the site in 1981, monks were alarmed by a precipitous drop in guano production and asked his advice on the problem. He discovered that poachers were killing large numbers of bats by setting nets over the cave entrance late at night when the monks weren’t looking. The bats were sold to restaurants as a food delicacy. After Merlin convinced the monks to hire a guard in 1981, bat guano sales increased from $12,500 U.S. annually to $89,000 within 10 years, and by 2002, annual sales had reached $132,000 U.S.  Recently, the guano producing bats had been in gradual decline despite 24-hour protection by a team of four guards, so Merlin was quite pleased to discover several evenings ago that the most likely cause of renewed decline was simple to remedy–remove gradually encroaching vegetation.

 

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Thailand Bat Cave Revisited

Merlin meeting with the head monk at Wat Khao Chong Pran who was happy to see him again.
Merlin meeting with the head monk at Wat Khao Chong Phran who was happy to see him return.

We arrived at Wat Khao Chong Phran unannounced and surprisingly the head monk agreed to see us immediately on the same porch where we met him with Daniel Hargreaves in 2012 (See Sept. 20 blog Guano happens). Merlin even wore the same shirt, his favorite field shirt! Pongsanant, our BatThai guide and interpreter then and now, told us the monk was quite happy to see us again. We had a short visit and were granted permission to go up to the cave entrance to photograph the emergence. We made an appointment to see him the following morning to discuss our findings.

MDT_TH4_C3_5203
Merlin at the cave entrance with our guide Pongsanant interpreting, while he explains to the head guard and a monk which trees and vines need trimming for the safety of the bats as they emerge each night.

The wrinkle-lipped bat (Chaerephon plicatus) colony had been slowly declining in recent years, despite protection, so Merlin was concerned to discover why. After climbing to the cave we noticed that trees and vines had gradually grown up around the entrance, disrupting the bats’ emergence, as thousands collided with obstacles. We saw clear problems that in other free-tailed bat caves have caused abandonment and reported this the next morning. Merlin was happy to provide an on-site explanation and delighted when the tree trimming was promptly ordered. The cave managers are now aware that this should be repeated every couple of years in the future as a routine part of protection.

Given Merlin’s involvement in gaining the first protection for these bats 34 years ago, he’s especially interested in ensuring their continued safety.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Angkor Wat and Bats

Angkor WatLiterally thousands of temple ruins are near Siem Reap to explore, and at least three days is recommended to see most of them. In one day we visited ten, and were pleased to find bats in most of them.

The complex of temples known as Angkor was built from the 9th to 13th century by successive Khmer rulers, and the mother of them all is the Angkor Wat Temple, the largest (first Hindu, later Buddhist) temple in the world. Between the 12th and 13th century, when London had a mere population of about 50,000, it is estimated that Angkor had 1,000,000, making it the largest city in the world at the time.  They were the people, under successive Khmer kings, who built these massive construction projects on the scale of the Egyptian Pharaohs’ pyramids.

If you’ve ever seen the Angelina Jolie movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, many of the scenes were filmed at Angkor. I join the chorus and recommend you see Angkor Wat before you die!

At nearby Phnom Kulen National Park, we set up a four-panel bat trap over a small stream in the forest for about an hour, and caught five species of bats. (more…)

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Dawn Bats Pollinating Parkia and Wild Banana

Merlin feeding a Greater Long-tongued Nectar Bat (Macroglossus sobrinus)

On our first day in Hat Yai, after a 20-minute drive from our hotel, we arrived at the Prince of Songkla University (PSU) with Sara and Pushpa. We were given a large lab room in which to set up our photography studio while Pushpa, Pipat and others went mist netting for nectar bats for us to photograph. They returned with two Dawn Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) which were hand-fed by Pushpa and released into the studio for the night.

Pushpa feeding the bats

After midnight, finding a tuk tuk (auto taxi) on campus to get to our hotel was not possible. Pushpa found a motorbike taxi, and Merlin got on with the driver, while I got on Pushpa’s bike. At 2 o’clock in the morning, we had the roads to ourselves.

Logistically, it was difficult to work so far from the bats, so we were offered guest housing on the PSU campus for the rest of our stay. We are grateful to Tuenjit Sritongchuay (a.k.a. Fon), a Ph.D. student, for coming up with the suggestion and personally making all the arrangements. Except when we got locked into the building where we were working or got lost, wandering around the campus at 3 a.m., it worked out really well!

Merlin in a tuk tuk

In the evenings, soon after sundown, we searched for flowers with limited success. We were most interested in photographing bats pollinating Parkia flowers to show the economic value of bats as essential pollinators of the petai or stink bean crop obtained from this plant. It was the end of their flowering season, so they were neither easy to find nor to reach. Pushpa climbed a tree and used a long-handled pruner and carefully lowered the light-bulb shaped flowers down to Merlin and Fon below.

Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) and Parkia flower

One night, we went to the mangroves with Sara and two students from Bhutan to search for flowers from the tree Sonneratia ovata. Unfortunately, they weren’t flowering.

Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea)
Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) pollinating a wild banana flower

 

We needed to keep our bats working, coming to flowers, so Sara brought us flowering stalks of wild bananas. On a previous trip to Thailand, Merlin had taken an excellent photo of a bat pollinating wild banana all covered in pollen, but why not try to improve?

In total, we photographed 22 genera and 32 bat species, a wonderfully successful trip, thanks to many outstanding helpers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Daniel, Hello PSU

bat photography by merlin and daniel
Merlin and Daniel photographing bats in the field

After a rather tense drive from Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary through the risky provinces of Thailand’s Deep South on our way to the Narathiwat Airport, we said goodbye and thanks to Daniel Hargreaves for planning and organizing what had been a fantastic field trip. Daniel needed to return home to the UK, but Merlin and I would stay in Thailand for another week to photograph nectar-feeding bats visiting Parkia flowers, among others. The fruit of Parkia is called petai or stink bean. It’s bat pollinated and exceptionally economically important in Southeast Asia.

Sara Bumrungsri
Sara Bumrungsri

To help us get these photographs, we would be working with Merlin’s colleague, Dr. Sara Bumrungsri, and his graduate students at Prince of Songkla University, a two-hour drive north of the Narathiwat Airport in the city of Hat Yai.

Pipat Soisook
Pipat Soisook

While working at Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, we were in the capable hands of one of the Ph.D. candidates at PSU, Pipat Soisook, curator of mammals at the natural history museum on the PSU  campus. Pipat had delivered Daniel safely to the Narathiwat Airport and then Merlin and me to our hotel in Hat Yai. Only five months earlier, an insurgent’s bomb had exploded in the adjoining shopping mall, killing and injuring civilians.

Pushpa Raj Archarya
Pushpa Raj Archarya

At our hotel, we were met by Dr. Sara and Pushpa Raj Acharya, a Ph.D. candidate from Nepal. Pushpa is his country’s first bat biologist. As a matter of fact, before Merlin had left his position as Executive Director of Bat Conservation International, he had organized a special BCI scholarship for Pushpa to study durian pollination by bats. Durian is another extremely economically important fruit in SE Asia.

Sara and Merlin enjoying durian outside the university.
Sara and Merlin enjoying durian outside the university.

It seems to me, durian should be called stink fruit. It’s so malodorous that hotels and airplanes ban it. Yet despite its unpleasant smell, durian has a lot of loyal fans. Dr. Sara is one of them. He enthusiastically bought one to share with us. Merlin is the ultimate frugivore and never met a fruit he didn’t like. Durian was a big hit with him, but I’d rather eat stink beans.

 

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