Ever so batty about Zam­bia

A ring­side seat for the big­gest winged mi­gra­tion in the world

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SARA EVANS

WITH bel­lies full of mango, they fly in ex­hausted. All night they have been gorg­ing on the fruits of the for­est. At about 5am, as the sun starts to rise, they re­turn home to di­gest their fruity bounty.

Hun­dreds soon be­come thou­sands and tens of thou­sands be­come hun­dreds of thou­sands un­til the light­en­ing sky above me fills with mil­lions of furry, fruit­stained, winged crea­tures.

They are fruit bats (or fly­ing foxes), and with straw-coloured, puppy-sized bod­ies and wings that span al­most 1m, these are gi­ant fruit bats. All are look­ing for a roost­ing space and competition is fierce in this small patch of re­mote swamp for­est in Zam­bia’s Kasanka Na­tional Park.

From my tree­top hide, about 20m above the ground, I am al­most at the same height as the bats. Against a back­drop of a crim­son sky, the sight of mil­lions of these crea­tures sil­hou­et­ted against the early morn­ing sun is star­tling. Grace­ful as trapeze artists, the bats dive in and out of the for­est’s tow­er­ing trees, chat­ter­ing and squeal­ing loudly. Land­ing on the trunks of red ma­hogany and milk­wood trees, they crawl up into the branches, nudg­ing, shov­ing and bump­ing each other un­til they find a free space from which to hang up­side down.

The trees swarm with bats. Wrig­gling and jig­gling, they pack tightly, like grapes, into clus­ters and be­gin to set­tle down. Af­ter a night of fly­ing and for­ag­ing they are ex­hausted. Brown leath­ery wings are pulled in over hon­ey­coloured tum­mies. Bright orange eyes, housed in faces as sweet as a puppy dog’s, start to close.

As they drift into sleep, bird­song, gen­tle as a lul­laby, grad­u­ally re­places the high-pitched din of the bats. The for­est, now an enor­mous bat dor­mi­tory, falls quiet.

With an es­ti­mated 10 mil­lion (pos­si­bly as many as 15 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to some fig­ures) bats snooz­ing here from late Oc­to­ber to the end of De­cem­ber, this is the largest bat roost on earth. From the neigh­bour­ing Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, mil­lions of fruit bats mi­grate, reg­u­lar as clock­work, ev­ery year.

Gas­tro­nomic tourists with huge ap­petites, they come in search of sea­sonal wa­ter­ber­ries, mango, wild lo­quat and red milk­wood berries. While they are in Kasanka, the bats eat their way through the for­est, each feast­ing on about 2kg of fruit ev­ery night. By the time the bats leave in late De­cem­ber, the trees are stripped bare; more than one bil­lion pieces of fruit will have been de­voured.

Such is the draw of this am­brosia that the num­ber of bats mi­grat­ing here is more than 10 times the num­ber of mam­mals in­volved in Africa’s most fa­mous wildlife spec­ta­cle, the an­nual mi­gra­tion of 1.8 mil­lion wilde­beest be­tween the Ma­sai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tan­za­nia.

The fruit bats’ mi­gra­tion from the Congo Basin to Kasanka is ac­tu­ally the largest mam­mal mi­gra­tion on earth. And it hap­pens in a pocket of for­est no big­ger than two or three foot­ball pitches, in one of Zam­bia’s small­est and least-vis­ited na­tional parks.

Kasanka cov­ers a stretch of just 390sq km but what it lacks in size (by African game re­serve stan­dards) it makes up for in bio­di­ver­sity. As well as the swamp for­est so loved by fruit bats, Kasanka fea- tures an in­cred­i­ble ar­ray of habi­tats. There are grass­lands and plains, dry wood­lands and thick­ets, river­ine ar­eas and la­goons.

In turn, this di­ver­sity of habi­tat sup­ports an ar­ray of wildlife. With more than 410 bird species counted at Kasanka, twitch­ers find the ter­ri­tory out­stand­ing; Pel’s fish­ing owls, wat­tled crane, Ross’s lourie and var­i­ous species of ea­gle all share habi­tats here.

It’s not home to all of the big five, but the park has grow­ing num­bers of mon­keys, ba­boons, jack­als, hye­nas, civets, genets, hip­pos and ele­phants. There are also nu­mer­ous an­te­lope species, in­clud­ing the world’s dens­est and most vis­i­ble pop­u­la­tion of si­tatunga, one of Africa’s least-seen deer.

Re­cently, lions and leop­ards have been seen, and with the odd preda­tory big cat around, Kasanka takes no chances with the safety of vis­i­tors. Walk­ing to the bat hides in the swamp for­est, I am ac­com­pa­nied by both guide and armed es­cort.

Kasanka is a safe place for bats in the main, but tucked un­der trees on the banks of the Mu­sola and Kasanka rivers that con­verge here, croc­o­diles lie in wait. For, now and again, branches made weak by the weight of dream­ing masses of bats will break away.

Tum­bling down into the jaws of the croc­o­diles, sleepy fruit-filled bats make a wel­come swamp snack for stom­achs.

While heavy with doz­ing bats, none of the branches here seems likely to snap. The for­est is still and bathed in sun­light. I climb down from the hide; it’s time to leave the bats to their slum­bers.

They will wake just be­fore twi­light. Rav­en­ous, they will chat­ter and squeal, fid­get and preen. Then, as the sun bids farewell to the day, they’ll take off in search of those berries and fruits. And by the light of the moon, in my tree­top hide, I’ll again be watch­ing, mar­vel­ling as the amaz­ing spec­ta­cle un­folds.

rum­bling

rep­til­ian

SARA EVANS

Fruit bats in Kasanka vie for a space to roost

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