OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

Proyek Kelelawar

A study of bats and invertebrates in the caves of the Togian Islands Sulawesi, Indonesia

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Stuart Strathdee

The enveloping humidity of a tropical night, the pungent smells of clove cigarettes, coconut oil and diesel, shouting voices, the incessant thudding of the boat's engine, the creaking of timbers as the Antasari gently rubbed against the quay. At last the instruction came, the crowd surged forward to scramble aboard. After the waiting it was a scene of frantic activity as we tried to stow our precious equipment in one of the ship's tiny cabins. Don Maclean blasted from the ship's impressive PA system, the moorings were flung loose, the whole boat shook in sympathy with the ancient engine. The last stage of our journey had begun - the next day we would reach the Togians.

The whole town had gathered to meet the boat; a weekly visitor bringing news, supplies, and today something very interesting, four westerners - a great novelty. "Hey mister! Where are you from? Where are you going?" - a hoard of inquisitive kids shouted and giggled, tripping over one another as they jostled to get a better view. The ritual haggling over, we stacked our bags on the oxen cart and trundled off, tail in tow, for Abu Wila's, the town's B&B and our base for the next seven weeks.

From Wakai, the main settlement, we set out to study the caves of the Togians. The first ten days were spent in Tanimpo Cave, a 1km+ streamway through a hill. The cave was several kilometres inland. Quickly learning to avoid the midday heat, we would rise soon after dawn and set off amid the long shadows and soft orange light of the tropical sunrise. Our route led us through cleared plantations to a neighbouring village and then on into the forest. We followed the river upstream, climbing a waterfall, swimming through a gorge, clambering over fallen trees and round giant butress roots. We always knew when we were nearing the cave by the stench of ammonia from the rotting guano, and the sound of the cave swiftlet's clicking calls.

For the rest of the expedition we hired a canoe and outboard and made our way around the six largest islands, stopping off at coastal settlements to find guides to take us to local caves. It was just like the Bounty bar adverts; endless sunshine, blue sky and clear, clear water, coral reefs and palm- fringed beaches so white that it hurt your eyes to look at them.

Enough of the purple prose; there has to be some science in the journal! Each cave we studied was surveyed (BCRA 5b). Bats were caught in hand nets, identified, weighed, measured, sexed, then released. Ectoparasites were removed from the captured bats. We also attempted to estimate the numbers of different bat species in each cave and determine the preferred roost site for each species with respect to factors such as cave location, size, temperature and amount of light penetration. Mist nets were used to trap bats in the forest. Invertebrates were collected inside the caves by hand. Outside the caves we also captured invertebrates using pitfall traps, malaise traps, river nets and light traps.

We caught sixteen species of bat, none of which were either new to science or previously undiscovered in Sulawesi. Over one thousand species of invertebrate were collected. Even four years later identification of these is still not complete, as it depends on entymologists all over the world classifying specimens. Tropical rainforest is an incredibly rich habitat and as far as we know no scientists had previously visited that region of Sulawesi, so it is quite likely that several hundred specimens are of previously undescribed species.

It's now four years since we returned from the Togians but the memories endure; the beauty of the islands and friendliness of the people. I suppose in material terms they were really poor, but they seemed more relaxed and content than people in the West. An Indonesian word puts it well... "Sanang' - it means "Happy in your heart'.

(The results of the OU Proyek Kelelawar Expedition have been published only in the Expedition's own Final Report. Copies are available from OUCC.)