Closeup of bats, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
The Monfort Bat Sanctuary in Samal Island has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed. Imagine 1.8 million Geoffroy's Rousette Fruit Bats living in a cramped cave space, jostling each other for space, nursing babies, sleeping, mating... there's something both grand and creepy about the sight.
The property has been with the Monfort-Iñigo family for generations, and current owner Norma Monfort today guards the bats' welfare with all the determination of a den mother. It's a thin line she walks: too few visitors, and she runs short of the income she needs to keep the place going. Too many, and the bats are disturbed - when that happens, many pups tend to fall to the cave floor to their deaths.
When we came to visit, we found Norma Monfort waiting for us, ready to give us a tour and a brief backgrounder of the place. The rest of this article is our conversation, translated from Filipino. The bold text are our questions, the rest are her answers.
If you want to read more about Ms. Monfort's labor of love, read our article: Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal Island, Philippines. Our interview with Ms. Monfort after the jump.
Cave opening, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
MIKE: How long has the Monfort bat sanctuary been around?
Ms. Monfort: Our family always had this. The bats multiplied after World War II, when all the other bat caves were disturbed. Because this is private property, the bats were left alone.
People would come and I wouldn't charge to let them in until one day, [Filipino broadcaster] ABS-CBN and the Department of Tourism asked me if I would allow them inside!
I agreed, but afterward, when I had the cave inspected, so many baby bats had died. When the film crew was there, the bats were disturbed, and the baby bats fell to the floor of the cave. So I said, I'm going to write whoever I need to write, I need help! Tell me what to do. It was a Japanese scientist who suggested I contact the Guinness World Book of Records. So we did, and it snowballed from there. Thanks to that and National Geographic my media mileage has only increased.
Bat cave and railings, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
What do you tell visitors to remember when they're seeing the bats for the first time?
The only thing we ask of people is to keep their voices down, so the bats don't wake up. These species are active, from the films [taken by scientists], they're all the time fighting with each other, one is giving birth, one is sleeping, The mating is really funny, because the female, after mating, will reposition to poop on the head of the male! We laugh and laugh and laugh.
Entrance gate, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
How many visitors do you get?
At least 100 in a day. It's worse for the bats if a lot of people come see them. Busloads of schoolkids, the bats get disturbed, I don't have enough guides, I don't have marshals, and kids are always noisy. The guano, the smell is very strong, some people say it makes them puke. Sorry, that's their habitat, I don't clean that up! The guano, I don't touch that since that incident [with the TV station]. Nobody's allowed inside.
Even the bat's emergence from the cave, we don't open that to the public because it's too hard. There have to be marshals at night and all that.
Interior of cave, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
Is the bat emergence spectacular?
Very. It takes hours. So many bats come out, some even go take a dip in the sea. As the scientists tell me, that's a very unusual behavior! And the cave has only one species of bat. That's unusual. Usually they have three or four in one colony. That's why they want to assess it.
There were scientists here from Tokyo University, they were surprised with what they found. What is it that's making these colonies thrive when they're so crowded? Usually they die off. We can use this cave to do more research, get a lot of information to help biodiversity, bats, and humans.
Exterior of cave, Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal, Philippines. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.
A recent cave assessment early this year found something very surprising. Tell me about it.
They wanted to do cave assessment. At first I didn't want them to do it, I felt I really don't want anybody going in. They told me it was important, and as it was only two scientists going in, I let them do it.
They had to stop it early, because my God, because everybody's pregnant! They're pregnant all year round. And they're still mating! [Their mating is] supposed to be seasonal, but these Monfort bats, I don't know what's wrong with them! And then the males are very aggressive with the babies, they'll kill the babies so the mothers will be in heat again. Sometimes you see them delivering. That's why very it's very dangerous if I insist on getting guano. Because if I send somebody in, they'll get disturbed.
The two research students will come back here to help with whatever Monfort bat caves needs, and that's good, because so far it's only been me. It's been so hard to do this on my own, it's tough!
Other scientists are offering to make this place a research center. As for me, I'm in charge of a batcave foundation - I need to raise funds for infrastructure, and other stuff that people are asking me to have. We have no gift shop, no snacks or drinks! One at a time! I'm the only person in charge!