There is a cave in the forested mountains of Western Thailand not far from the Burmese border, where a lone Buddhist monk lives, spending his days pondering on the meaning of life. He is known to the local villages simply as the Old Abbot. As prescribed by Buddhist tradition, the Old Abbot comes down from the mountain each morning, walking barefoot to the nearby village on his alms round. The villages give alms – the Abbot’s only source of food, and he chants a melodic blessing in gratitude. Quite often the villages visit the Abbot on his mountain to pay their respect, ask for advice, receive a blessing or simply to relax in the tranquil setting of his cave ‘temple’. This is all business as usual in rural Thailand. What is not quite so usual is one of the neighbours that the Old Abbot shares his cave with.
For over 4 years, I happened to be living in the village that the Abbot visited on his alms rounds. I went to his cave quite often and for me it held a special interest. On my first foray into the cave I discovered four bat species roosting in various chambers. And incredibly, one of them was the endangered Kitti’s Hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) – the world’s smallest bat and, as some believe, the world’s smallest mammal. These species are only known from two caves in Burma and a few more in Western Thailand. They have an incredibly narrow distribution range. Also known as Bumblebee bats, these tiny creatures weigh on average 2 grams and grow to all of 3 cm in length.
The Abbot is a keen naturalist and he has known about the bats for quite some time. Kitti’s bats appeared in his cave in late 2004. Before that, the chamber where Kitti’s bats now live was empty and the cave itself was occupied only by the three larger species.
Not much is known about Kitti’s bats. When I first discovered the colony in the Abbot’s cave it numbered approximately 100 individuals. But through the year the numbers fluctuated quite dramatically, with the lowest counts in May-June. In July the numbers usually started to increase, which coincided with appearance of females carrying almost-grown young. It is likely, that as soon as females give birth in April they migrate to a different chamber or even a different roosting site all together and stay there for as long as they are lactating. Once the young are almost weaned the females return to their home chamber. Such behaviour was shown in Mouse-tailed Bats – close relative of Kitti’s bats. I did spot a few individuals in the main chamber of the cave during the low density period. It is possible these were some of the ‘missing females’.
Another interesting behavioural pattern I noticed in Kitti’s bats is that they don’t forage the entire night, but only emerge for two short activity periods: just after sun down and just before sunrise. On the mountain, the Old Abbot established some rudimentary infrastructure with the help of the locals and one of the most impressive achievements is the rain water reservoir. It is big enough to swim in and it serves as a good open space for bats to hunt at night. Kitti’s bats emerge around 6.40 pm (in late summer) and forage over the reservoir for no more than 40 minutes. The Abbot usually sees them early in the morning, between 5.50 and 6am, but not at night.
It appears that these tiny creatures hold a number of secrets. They live in one of the world’s remotest and partly politically unstable regions. Maybe it will play out in their favour and they will be spared the unnecessary attention. Seeing them in that hidden cave on top of the mountain always gave me a feeling that I was witnessing something extraordinary, catching a glimpse of a world that exists beyond human awareness.
Kitti’s bats a not the only residents that the Abbot shares his cave with. There are three other species of bats: Lesser false vampire (Megaderma spasma), Intermediate Roundleaf bat (Hipposideros larvatus) and Trident Roundleaf bat (Aselliscus stoliczkanus). Trident Roundleaf bats appear to have the same breeding season as Kitti’s bats. There is usually a decent number of Trident Roundleaf females carrying almost grown young in June – July. The lactating females prefer the low ledges in the main chamber for roosting and therefore easily observed. By August however, Trident bats move up toward the roof of the cave closer to the larger Intermediate Roundleaf bats.
The Lesser false vampire bats live in a separate chamber and I have never seen more than five of them at once.
The only obvious predator living in the cave is the magnificent Cave-dwelling snake (Elaphe taeniura ridleyi) that is known to hunt bats. Though, there are Tarantulas or Bird-eating spiders in the cave and they could potentially take out a few of the Kitti’s bats.
Bats, of course, are not the only mammals living on the mountain with the Abbot. As hard as rural Thais try to eat their way through the remaining wildlife (they view the mammal field guide as a menu!), some still remain. No one could conceive such an audacity as hunt in the environs of the Abbot’s mountain. There are numerous Variable squirrels (Callosciurus finlaysonii), Grey-bellied squirrels (Callosciurus caniceps), Indochinese ground squirrels (Menetes berdmorei ) and Northern tree shrews (Tupaia belangeri ) rustling in the shrubs and trees. Until recently, Slow lorises (Nycticebus coucang) were seen quite often, though in the recent years there have been no sightings. There is an occasional Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica), but since these shy and gentle creatures are worth their weight in desperately needed cash, they have slim chances of survival even on the Abbot’s mountain. While they are hard to spot due to their nocturnal habits, they are quite easy to catch. Pangolins feed primarily by raiding ant and termite nests up in the trees, and once spotted they have no escape route. All the hunter needs to do is to climb up and collect the defenceless animal from his feeding spot.
As sad as it is, that such a unique biodiversity hotspot is a rare exception in the sea of cultivated landscape, it is perhaps encouraging that its very existence is due to spiritual intervention. Religion plays a much larger role in the Thai society, than it does in most Western counties, and perhaps this could be one of the avenues to explore in the battle to conserve the county’s rapidly disappearing biodiversity.