And it needs to get bigger.
TRISTAN MANALAC Words/Photos
In the Monfort Bat Sanctuary, near the northern tip of the garden island of Samal, the bat cave opens upward, its five mouths yawning at the lazy afternoon sun. Peering inside, the bats are invisible one moment and hypervisible the next; there is no in between.
Bats occupy every possible inch of roosting space in the 245 ft (75 m)-long cave, and then some. There are so many bats that the walls appear to be covered in a thick, black, squirming fur carpet. More, still, are in flight. Fences keep the Sanctuary’s guests at a safe distance from the cave openings. Still, it’s impossible not to feel a palpable proximity to the bats.
The Sanctuary is part of a sprawling 21-hectare estate that sits atop a cavernous belly. It is home to upwards of two million Geoffroy’s Rousette Fruit Bats (Rousettus amplexicaudatus). Over 600 bats clung to every square meter of ceiling space. It is the largest single colony of this kind of bat in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
And Norma Monfort, founder and president of the Monfort Bat Cave & Conservation Foundation, Inc., says that the number has only ballooned in the ensuing decade. Currently, the caves are way past maximum capacity, she adds. Despite no real, organized effort to catalog the colony, it isn’t hard to believe her at all.
“It’s unnatural for bats to be out in the open, almost at the feet of the guests,” Monfort laments. “And they also roost on the ground, which is so unusual for a bat. They should be clinging to the walls. When they’re down on the ground, all the predators―the lizards, the pythons, the rats―they can easily catch [the bats].”
But on a more fundamental level, she just wants to be a good Bat Mama―a moniker given to her by admirers of her work. “It frustrates me that I can’t give them proper housing.”
In a bid to decongest, Monfort plans to create an artificial alternative to the existing, overcrowded bat cave. In the blueprints, a recycled container van will act as the structure of the cave. Inside, cement will cover the walls and ceiling, providing the bats with a familiar surface to roost on.
Interestingly, the finishing details on the project are its most important ones. Monfort looks to enlist the help of two expert bat scientists to try and replicate the conditions inside the native cave: temperature, moisture, light. She wants her bats to feel as at home as possible.
In the meantime, two such caves should provide enough additional space. But if it all works out, Monfort says there’s no reason for her to impose a strict limit. Of course, all of these will remain plans unless they are funded. The Sanctuary only earns from entrance fees, after all–hardly enough to back such a large-scale project.
Monfort has applied for a grant with the Rotary International and is, at present, awaiting results. But even if that doesn’t fall into place for her, she says some private investors have also offered financial assistance. “I have wanted to start this project for a long time, but money had always been a problem,” she explains. “So, whether Rotary gives me the grant or not, the moment I get a hold of money, this project will be my priority.”
Conservation is herculean work in that any real, lasting impacts will require efforts that go far beyond anything that a single individual can ever hope to accomplish. Monfort, of course, understands this. If she wants the cave to outlive her, she’s going to need people to continue her work―and have the same heart for bats―even after she’s gone.
Her plan is clever: Create a mutually beneficial ecosystem so that people learn to appreciate the value of protecting the bats. To this end, she wants to turn her property into somewhat of an ecotourism hub. She knows she may need to compromise and offer more run-of-the-mill amenities, like beachfront rooms or a café, to cater to guests who may be less environmentally inclined. However, she’s firm about doing more.
She envisions, for instance, to establish outdoor classrooms and spirituality centers to encourage a more mindful way of life among guests. The plans are still mostly shapeless, but in the end, she hopes to expand the public’s consciousness about bats and about nature.
More crucially, however, Monfort aims to provide livelihood opportunities to the people living nearby. She looks to enlist locals as employees, as well as teach them skills they can use to support themselves. As much as it is for the bats, she wants her property to be a sanctuary for the communities around it, too.
“I want to generate a lot of community projects. Because when the community sees that they can derive benefits from conserving the bats, then they will help conserve the bats,” Monfort says.
“And maybe that will let the cave live forever.” ―MF