Mystery of Zambia migrating bats

Burzil Dube

Wildlife tourism is considered a catalyst for development although some sections of society consider or associate a few of these mammals with bad omens or so called witchcraft.

Some of the so-called 'evil' animals include, but are not limited to hyenas, owls, bats and antbears among others. They are considered an anathema to human way of  life as their presence in particular communities is usually associated with bad luck.

In most African cultures, the sight or sound of a hyena  is considered taboo and it is believed that witches and wizards use this animal as some form of 'easy transport' during their nocturnal endevours while the same also applies to above-mentioned wild animals.

In other cultures across the world, bats are associated with evil spirits, vampires and death-related issues while some consider them as heralding fortune among other good tidings.

However, all the above-mentioned mammals immensely contribute to the ecosystem as well as the tourism industry. Bat watching has significantly improved environmental management systems through a deliberate strategy in raising awareness on such endangered species.

Yours Truly will somehow try to 'tour' Kasanka National Park, which is situated in eastern Zambia where each year about 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats migrate from central Africa to this particular national park to consume abundant ripening fruits.

This interesting information has been gleaned from Discover Zambia, a publication that seeks to promote the Zambian tourist industry which continues to grow in leaps and bounds.

It is reported that the bats begin to trickle into this particular national park around October, but they gradually increase by each day and are believed to be from different countries across central Africa.

By mid-November, millions of these nocturnal mammals with fox-like faces completely cover tree trunks and at sunset they fly out also literally covering the sky on their foraging mission.

Every afternoon towards sunset, their restless chirping and squeaking sounds, which are  similar to a raging flooded river are heard from distant places.

A few bats come out at dusk until they silhouette the whole sky as far as the naked eye could see much to the amusement of bird-watching enthusiasts.

These flying mammals' routine dawn to dusk flying is quite impressive and continues to be a marvel to watch as their 'in-built' sonar guidance systems  enable them to flit around each other without any collisions  or mid air crashes.

Bat-viewing is not for the faint hearted as one has to climb designated trees at dusk or dawn in order to witness the once-in-a-lifetime show unhindered and unforgettable.

Viewing the bats at dawn descending into their hideouts clicking and clacking while communicating with each other is certainly out of this world. This is certainly a must see for bird watchers enthusiasts even though the bats are not considered birds.

To the uninitiated, bats spend the better part of daylight hours hanging upside down in dark places  but also eat, relieve themselves and even mate while inverted! That is how nature operates.

At the Kasanka National Park, these flying mammals squeeze at every available branch space, scrambling over each other while trying to find an inch of something solid to hang from.

It is quite a spectacle.

However, the multi-billion dollar question is why these type of bats return to this particular place each year after travelling thousands of kilometres from central Africa.

One school of thought from mammalogists is that this national park has abundant fruits such as wild loquat and water berries that ripen at that particular time of the year while others are of the opinion that Kasanka acts as a nursing ground because bats would be pregnant or lactating upon their arrival.

Experts believe that this type of bat migration is considered to be the world's greatest mammal migration even though there is wildebeest migration in the Serengeti in east Africa as well as the white eared kob and antelope in South Sudan.

However, it is the animal numbers that count in terms of migration and bats lead the pack.

So one has to discontinue the notion that bats are part of witchcraft deity.

Till we meet again in the next column.

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