The dictionary states that ambivalence refers to the existence in the same person of two conflicting feelings about the same object. This is exactly the feeling we have as we leave Indonesia. Our experiences in the archipelago go from one extreme to another (without forgetting the intermediate feelings either!). The cruelty of the markets of Tomohon on Sulawesi, where bats are sold for human consumption, clashes with the veneration with which they are treated on Goa Lawah, the temple of the bats on Bali. And between these extremes, there are the many bats that are kept in cages as pets.
The flying foxes, large fruit-eating bats, are – as far as we could see – the only bats that are actually eaten, but are also the only ones that are worshipped. A number of people explain to us what bats taste like, how to cook them and enumerate some of their curative properties. Fortunately, these tastes are not shared by everyone and seem to be less widespread amongst the younger generations who often turn their noses up at the idea of eating wild animals.
We visited the islands of Sulawesi, Bali, Flores and Rinca, and then head for Brisbane, Australia, where we hope to appreciate other aspects of the complex relationship between humans and bats. On all these islands we met people who eat bats, but also some who assured us that they had never eaten bats nor would never do so. Indonesia is a country characterized by a mix of religions and different ethnic groups, and this diversity is reflected in the sheer variety of distinct relationships between bats and people.
Both on Sulawesi and Bali, bats are sold for different reasons. Bat sellers remark that every year they have to go further to get hold of them. Now that local populations have been decimated, Borneo, the paradigm of a tropical jungle paradise, has become the chief supplier of bats to neighbouring islands. The few colonies of large bats that we see confirm the fact that bats in Indonesia only survive in totally inaccessible colonies, either because they are regarded as sacred or because the mangrove forests are completely impenetrable.
Indonesia presents itself to visitors as the country of the 17,000 islands, each of which seems to have something that makes it unique. The islands of Komodo and Rinca in the east of the archipelago are home to one of the region’s most extraordinary animals, the Komodo dragon. A close relative to the lizards, the enormous size of this species – up to 2-metres long – gives it the aspect of a relict from prehistoric eras.
We leave port Labuan Bajo and head for Rinca, somewhat baffled by the information we have been given and not knowing for how long we will be sailing or whether or not we will be able to see the dragons. The only thing certain is that we will drop anchor at dusk near Pulau Kalong, the island of the bats, where we will be able to watch the flying fox colony take to the air.
Still excited by having seeing the dragons, we reach Pulau Kalong along with four other ships full of tourists. Kamel, our guide, explains that some have come just to enjoy the spectacle of the flying foxes that we are about to witness.
The island is covered by an impenetrable mangrove forest and, according to Kamel, is a safe refuge for the bats, who rest unseen in the centre of the island by day. As dusk falls we are astonished by the sheer quantity of flying foxes that rise up into the sky to fly off across the sea to the neighbouring island of Flores, just 4 km away. The sky is flooded by their silhouettes, which look somewhat clumsy and slow moving from a distance.
The show lasts for almost an hour. We return to port when it is dark, accompanied by the final few bats to emerge, who fly over the water around our boat as if they were bidding us farewell. We wonder where they are going. In the end, we leave the island with a certain sense of satisfaction that in Indonesia the more modern ways of appreciating nature are beginning to include bats.
Quite possibly all cultures share an admiration for nature, which can often be hard to appreciate if you come from elsewhere. We visited the bird market at Pasar Burung in Denpasar (Bali), where we expect to find bats on sale. The profusely decorated homemade cages seem to compete in beauty with the numerous colourful species of exotic wild birds that are up for sale. However, a closer look at the back rooms of some of these shops reveals a less charming reality: cages in which dozens of birds are crowded into minute spaces waiting to be bought or put on show; baby monkeys chained up in the dark that watch us pass by, their eyes wide-open in fright; birds of all sorts kept in paper boxes with neither food nor water; and bats kept in minute cages in which they barely fit. The bat seller tells us that they are well looked after, that they live a long time, and that people buy them to keep at home. The cost of a bat in Bali confirms that they are not sold for food: each bat costs in the region of 15–75 €, depending on the species. It is increasingly difficult to find bats on Bali, we are told, and so the bats on sale here come from the neighbouring island of Borneo.
The island of Bali lies at the centre of the vast Indonesian archipelago and is the region’s main tourist destination. It is well known for the countless Hindu temples that adorn the island and it is precisely one of these temples that has brought us here. Goa Lawah (bat cave in Balinese) provides visitors with a surprising image of a sanctuary in which thousands of bats take shelter and are protected by local worshippers. It is forbidden to enter the cave and all living creatures must be respected and protected. Those who fail to respect these rules fall into disgrace or even risk death. Mangku, the temple’s priest, tells us that “Humans must live in harmony with themselves, with God and with Nature. Bats have always lived in the temple and so he or she who doesn’t want the bats here shouldn’t come to the temple.” We travel around the island looking for evidence of bat worship. We find that in the Hindu creed, well illustrated on statues and engravings in the temples, the image of the bat is not present. Neither do we detect them in the forests where we would most expect to find them. The sanctuary of Goa Lawah seems to be the last refuge for bats on Bali.