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Life: Video extras: Five million hungry bats

Updated Monday 26th October 2009

Travelling to Zambia, Jenny Sharman and Richard Kirby of the Life team discuss the challenges of filming a colony of over five million bats.

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Richard Kirby: So this is why we’ve come all the way to Kasanka in Zambia. Here’s somewhere between five and eleven million bats flying out to feed tonight, and I mean it’s just astonishing, just as far as you can see to the horizon there are bats flying out in every direction.

Jenny Sharman: This migration is probably, it is one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. I mean every single night I watch these bats come out, and every single night I’m just in complete awe of what I see.

One of the most fascinating things about this migration is that nobody actually really understands where they’re coming from or where they go to. They arrive almost to the day on around October the 23rd, and they disappear just at the end of December. There’s some research that suggests that they come from different colonies, which is also incredibly interesting, so they’re sort of converging from various parts of Africa, probably north of here, onto this one tiny little spot.

There’s a certain amount of evidence to suggest, and a lot of theories, that they’re probably, majority of them coming from the Democratic Republic on Congo. The reason why they’re coming is also a mystery. There’s lots of theories again. Some scientists say that it’s a giant [expletive deleted] fest; they’re sort of coming here to sort of mix genes and so on. But I think probably, the most likely reason is the abundance of fruit. It’s certainly timed with the rains, and at this time of year there is a lot of fruit around, water berry trees and wild loquat. So, it’s probable that that’s why they’re all here.

Just this year, in fact, a study was done that showed that this particular species, which is Eidolon helvum, straw coloured fruit bat, is diminishing in Africa; it’s going down. And I think probably the reasons for that are principally habitat destruction. You know, forests all over Africa are under a great deal of threat, I mean particularly in the Congo, where these particular bats are probably coming from, there’s a lot of illegal logging as well as legal, mining companies, there’s a lot of hunting as well of bats in these areas.

So they are under threat, and I think it’s particularly important actually for us to take care of this species in particular because of the amount of regeneration that it has, the impact of regeneration on forests from seed dispersal and pollination. And I mean, they say that these sort of animals that do this kind of seed dispersal contribute to about a third of regeneration of forests, so if we lose them, we’re going to lose a great number of species in the forests and biodiversity.

There’s several challenges to filming the bats. I mean I think the first one is obviously that they’re incredibly sensitive to smell, so you’re always very, very aware of where you are in terms of the winds when you’re approaching the bats. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that just their range, the actual habitat that they’re in here is incredibly difficult to work in and to actually move around in. You get very, very thick forest undergrowth and twisted trees and low branches and stuff, and quite often if you do try and move around you’re on your hands and knees, so sort of carrying a massive camera and tripod around as well is very difficult.

But to sort of optimise the situation and try to get as much out of it as possible from the filming point of view, we’ve built a number of platforms in the forest which sort of raise us above the sort of low lying swamp fig and give us a good viewpoint of the forest. Then the other, we’ve also got a mobile platform, which we can sort of move around and rig up and down particular trees, and at the moment we’ve got it filming a crowned eagle which is nesting, and they’re taking bats back to their chick, which is very exciting.

When I’m walking through the forest and I’m on my own and, you know, just able to sort of take time out to sit and watch them all, I don’t know, I find them incredibly endearing. They’re very, they’re a very passive animal, and I’ve had one actually that, in fact, died in my hand. It had been injured from a branch break, its wing had been broken and I think it had got something internal wrong with it. And this little bat, I don’t know, I sort of, I felt a real connection with it, and that probably sounds a bit funny, but from that moment as well I just really wanted to do something for this species. I really wanted to try to make people aware of it and the importance of it, to ensure that it has a future on this planet.

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