by Rohit Chakravarty & Rohit Jha.
When we set out for our weekend search, we had just a few things in hand- a description of two specimens, incomplete GPS coordinates, which would land us in an unknown location near Kolar, and the bleak hope that we still haven’t lost the endemic bat…
The Kolar leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros hypophyllus) was discovered fairly recently, in 1994 by taxonomist Dieter Kock and ecologist H.R. Bhat from Kolar. It is endemic to South India and is known from only two localities in Kolar district (Hanumanhalli and Therhallli) and one locality in Mysore. Individuals of this species were collected from a narrow subterranean cave, in granite rocks in the year 1994, and the roost was shared with three other species- the Fulvous leaf-nosed bat (H. fulvus), Schneider’s leaf-nosed bat (H. speoris) and Dusky leaf-nosed bat (H. ater). Bates and Harrison, in their noteworthy book Bats of the Indian Subcontinent have provided detailed morphological and anatomical descriptions of two specimens deposited at the British Natural History Museum This was the only reference material available till date on the bat, apart from brief notes on the ecology of the species given by Kock and Bhat. In 2002, Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) workshop which was organized by Zoo Outreach, (an organization based in Coimbatore) came up with a detailed report on the status of South Asian bats. However, the workshop could shed little light on the current status and distribution of the Kolar bat, thus highlighting a major gap in assessment since its discovery.
This lack of attention that the Kolar bat has suffered from instigated us to use an extended weekend in January to embark on an exploratory visit to Hanumanhalli (15km east of Kolar town). This was the village from where the type specimen of the Kolar bat was described. After a few hours of walking through the countryside and enquiring with locals using what were the only two words we knew in Kannada- guhe (caves) and bavali (bats) (often enacting a cave sequence!), we were directed to a monolithic granite structure where, granite miners obliged us by showing two narrow subterranean caves. The strong stench of guano at the cave mouth was indicative of the presence of bats, and we were not disappointed. As we lay on the sloping, guano-littered cave floor and crawled as far as the narrow width of the cave permitted, we could see a colony of about 200 leaf-nosed bats under the torch light. With considerable effort we managed to click some pictures. Most of the bats that had come in our photographs were Fulvous leaf-nosed bats, but in general, such large colonies are assemblages of two or more species like Schneider’s, Dusky and Cantor’s leaf-nosed bats (H. galeritus).
However, the important question remains unanswered. After 19 years of non-discovery and inattention, do the Kolar bats still exist in these caves? And more importantly, if they do, will they survive the rampant granite mining? Since access is difficult, we inferred that mist-netting at the cave mouth when the bats emerge during dusk is the only way to ascertain the existence of the Kolar bat. We spoke to some laborers at the mining site and they said that the bats had been present in the cave since a long time back. They also claimed that granite mining had been on for the last 35 years. However, it is difficult to believe this claim as otherwise the mine would have, by now, been exhausted! It will not be too long, though, before miners reach the base of the hill and into the cave. If the Kolar bat is rediscovered in these caves, it would need urgent attention. Unabated granite mining should be stopped for protection of its diurnal roost, alongside conducting further exploration to identify other potential roosts.
In spite of being the most species-rich mammalian order in India, attention towards bats has been scarce. Being lost in incognizance is not a fate exclusive to the Kolar bat. It is a story shared by two other endemic bats. One such species is the Khajuria’s Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros durgadasi) discovered by Khajuria in 1970 from Katangi village in Jabalpur district (Madhya Pradesh). In 1980, Khajuria found another population in nearby Richhai village within the same district. The bats were found in artificial caves at an altitude of 200 m and were also collected from small caves in huge granite boulders. Khajuria estimated the population to be about 200 mature individuals. Since then, the species has remained in oblivion. Does the habitat and the colony exist is anybody’s guess. The 1996 IUCN Red List categorized it as ‘Vulnerable’; and subsequently, in 2008 it was pushed to the ‘Endangered’ category on account of its restricted range. Despite its international recognition as an endangered species, it has failed to gain the protection accorded to the famed Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat (Otomops wroughtonii) and the Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat (Latidens salimali) – the only two Schedule I species of bats under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Similar, or perhaps worse, is the fate of the Peter’s Tube-nosed Bat (Harpiola grisea). It is the rarest of all Indian bats, known only from the type specimen collected by Peter in Jeripanee in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand) in 1872 at an altitude of c. 1700m. The 2002 CAMP workshop report states that its type locality has undergone drastic development and lacks the original quality as described by Peter. It was proposed to consider the Peter’s bat as ‘Critically Endangered’ but it was subsequently categorized as ‘Data deficient’ under the 2012 IUCN Red List. Like the Kolar bat and the Khajuria’s bat, this species too has not won any provision of protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
This article relates to the fate of three of our endemic bats, but it may as well be true as a representation of many other species which though discovered, have still remained unknown due to a deficit of our attention. It would be unfortunate if these species were to go extinct; for it is one thing to lose a species while you were trying to protect it, and another to lose it while you were still oblivious of its presence.