Chennai's historic batcave

The Egmore Museum does not just house priceless artefacts from the past. It also houses colonies of fruit bats in the trees outside, as a plaque informs visitors

May 20, 2014 07:58 pm | Updated 07:58 pm IST - chennai:

Bats! By the hundreds and thousands! They hang by their feet from the tall tamarind trees, darkening the sky through sheer numbers. They occupy every branch, every twig, with clusters of mini leaves protecting them from the mid-day sun. At those heights, there is nothing to steal into their day-long siesta. The fluttering of wings in that upside-down stance is hardly a bother.

I am in Batland in the backyard of Chennai's museum in Egmore. The bustle of visitors isn't felt here; the steady silence is broken only by the occasional shriek of the birds above. Are these hunter-mammals exchanging notes of last night's adventure, jockeying for the best places to hang from?

These are the Indian flying fox and the greater short-nosed fruit bats, says the plaque nearby, covered with droppings. The WWF has found an insectivore as well. Their weight ranges from 0.75-1 kg, and since they like to roost in large, thousand-strong groups, they pick their trees carefully. Strangely, their wings seem relatively short for their size, but this helps them fly well, says biologist Dr. T. D. Babu. Yes, when individuals roost, they like to keep their distance and fight for space aggressively using teeth, thumbs and “vocalisations”. The fluttering of wings, he tells me, is actually a fanning action to cool down in high temperatures.

From the ground I can't see their fur, but Dr. Babu says they are short, with the longest strands appearing on the head. The colour and texture of the fur vary, depending on sex and age, the male fur growing thicker than the female's. You know you are looking at a young one when the fur is grey-brown, and an adult if it looks lighter. The fur on the head could be reddish orange or shades darker to it, while the underbelly is typically light brown to red. The one chick the female gives birth to clings to the mother for the first few days, and is weaned off within three months.

“One feature distinguishes the fruit bat from other species,” says Dr. Babu. “They have good eyesight while others use echolocation to catch their prey mid-air. Their sense of smell is also well-developed (helps when your diet is restricted to nectar, flowers, pollen and fruits).” Friends who have mango and banana trees in their yard have spotted fruit-bats flying in, but the fliers are partial to figs and guavas as well. They have been seen smartly tearing off the skin with their teeth to reach the pulp. Though silent during flight (in a radius of 40 miles), they can produce high decibel screeches when biting into food.

“We have a huge colony (of around 1,000 plus) at the Theosophical Society,” naturalist Geetha Jaikumar tells me. “They hang out on a banyan tree and others nearby.” I remember them. They appeared suddenly and settled at the society about 10-12 years ago. One can see them flying out at late evening – a spectacular sight! “TS has an extensive orchard of a variety of fruit trees — mango, sapota, jackfruit, gooseberry, guava — could be one reason for their presence there apart from a safe haven.”

I recall the gardener reminding me sombrely, “Fine they are here, but it means a large tree somewhere has been felled forcing them to find a home elsewhere.”

Alas, these mammals are listed as near-threatened species in IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, their main threats coming from loss of habitat (trees) and loss of fruit trees to hunt from. And gardeners — commercial or otherwise — do try to protect their fruit crops, right? But we wipe them out at our own peril; they serve in seed dispersal, pollination and pest control.

As Prof. Chandrasekaran, a bird specialist points out, properly managed, bird-related tourism activities like bird-watching or bird photography can serve as the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship between people and birds. We have to link local communities to save sites, species and habitats so it can enhance local livelihoods.

A thought strikes me as I walk through the museum's bat grove.

Not far from the spot, in a daring robbery, thieves reportedly broke into the Bronze Gallery on the night of December 27-28, 2013 and carted away “priceless” replicas of Mughal coins and equally valuable artefacts. Investigating officers said they had CCTV footage of a man smashing a window on the top floor from inside the building and another climbing through the window from a nearby tree. Were any of the fruit-hunters witness to the criminal act? Is there a batman in the museum's Gotham grove?

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