By Anand Chandrasekhar
A unique collaboration between cave explorers and biologists has helped discover rare bats in northeastern India. Now, they’re working with local tribes, researchers and officials to secure the future of these flying mammals.Swiss caving enthusiast Thomas Arbenz is hooked to the thrill of exploration. For the 61-year-old adventurer, caves remain one of the few places on earth where no humans have set foot before.
“It is such a good feeling to step into the unknown,” Arbenz told swissinfo.ch. “You feel like an explorer from the old days.”
It is this longing to discover new caves that led him to a remote part of India - more specifically to the state of Meghalaya in north-east India which has the reputation for being the wettest place on earth. He is a co-leader of a group of international group of speleologists who systematically explore and map Meghalaya’s intricate network of caves. They also contribute to science by helping biologists discover rare bat species that live in these unexplored caves.
Bats galoreIn 2011, fellow Swiss Manuel Ruedi, a biologist at the Geneva Natural History Museum, accompanied Arbenz on the Meghalaya expedition after hearing that the cavers routinely come across bats.
“Cavers are often the first people entering many of those caves,” he told swissinfo.ch. “So, the likelihood of finding exciting new biological material is there.”
Ruedi managed to catch some of these bats by placing special nets at the mouth of the grotto. It turned out that he had stumbled upon two new species of insect-eating Tube-nosed bats.
“When you catch a bat that seems a bit different from the other ones, you don't immediately realise it’s a new species,” he says, adding that differences can be so subtle that it takes a lot of work to confirm if it really is a previously undiscovered kind of bat.
After a year of cross-checking with specimens in historical collections and examining scientific literature, he was able to prove that he had indeed discovered two new species. He even named one of the bats after the Jaintia people of Meghalaya as a “thank you” gesture to the locals who allowed the team to explore their forests and hosted them.
But the caves of Meghalaya had more surprises in store for Ruedi. In 2014 he also discovered a new colony of the extremely rare Wroughton’s Free-tailed bat, the second such population known to science.
“We were very excited to find a bat colony 2400 km away from the only other known colony of the species,” says Ruedi.
Meghalaya native and bat researcher Adora Thabah was also present during the discovery. In fact, she had captured a single individual in 2002 during her field research for her PhD.
“It was a one-off catch and not finding another colony was very frustrating,” she told swissinfo.ch. “At last I was able to solve the mystery and there is now hope for the species in India.”
She believes that the bats would never have been found without help from the caving expedition.
“There are not many bat researchers in India and it would have been impossible for me to find them by myself,” she says.
Uncertain futureBats are regularly hunted and eaten by the locals. To keep the rare bats off the menu, the biologists and cavers embarked on an awareness programme to convince people about the importance of protecting them and the caves they live in.
“The main problem is that the people don’t understand the importance of bats in the ecosystem,” says Thabah. “It was explained to them that the bats eat their agricultural pests and pollinate their fruits, and that they were actually killing and eating a useful animal.”
However, it is not enough to protect the bat caves alone. The bats forage for insects as far as tens of kilometres from the cave. That is why it is equally important to preserve the forest habitat around the caves. However, deforestation for agriculture as well as for coal and limestone mining has taken a heavy toll on prime bat habitat in recent years.
“This is beyond what I can handle,” admits Ruedi. Instead, he has tried to get the state forest department officials invested in protecting the bat habitats by informing them of his discoveries and showing them where the important bat caves are.
Ruedi has also trained two local researchers who will continue the bat research and awareness programme to supplement Thabah’s efforts. This should at least ensure that the forest department officials are supplied with the information necessary for protecting critical bat habitats in Meghalaya.
“I was sort of a trigger for bat studies in eastern Meghalaya but now local researchers are taking the lead,” says Ruedi. “This is a great long-term outcome for the bats.”
Meghalaya – a caver’s paradiseThe tiny Indian state of Meghalaya - it is just over half the size of Switzerland - came to the attention of the international caving community two decades ago. In 1992, a group of four European cavers began exploring the caves in the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills and soon realised the potential of the region to become a global caving hotspot.
Since then, the small group has evolved into an annual caving expedition comprising around 30 cavers from all over the world and calls itself the Caving in the abode of the clouds project. So far, they’ve identified 1,300 caves, explored 825 of them, and surveyed in excess of 370 kilometres underground.
Most of the caves in Meghalaya are inaccessible to people who don't know anything about caving. To explore even easy caves you need to have basic equipment like head torches, helmets, protective suit and boots. More technical caves require climbing gear like ropes, carabiners and rope ladders. To enter river caves you also need neoprene suits, wellington boots and life jackets.
Besides technical gear, caving expertise and experience are a prerequisite for any kind of cave exploration. However, there are two or three “show caves” in Meghalaya that tour operators take visitors to see.