We leave the island with a bittersweet taste in our mouths: a prosperous and happy society but with no awareness that their natural treasures are gradually disappearing. This is a familiarly painful sensation. In this particular case, economic progress has converted the trade in bat meat into a dangerous road with no way back. And neither must we only worry about the bats on Sulawesi, for they are endangered on the neighbouring islands as well. We take over an hour to fly from one end of the island to the other and as we fly below us we note the succession of jungle-covered mountains that carpet the island. Perhaps not all is lost; nevertheless, as biologists we find it hard to believe that these bat populations, which reproduce so slowly, will survive so much external pressure.
During our short stay of just five days in North Sulawesi we enjoyed our stay in what is a very welcoming and prosperous country, whose people are friendly and always willing to help out. We visited the traditional markets where all kind of jungle meat is on sale: although species such as the white-tailed rat Mystromys albicaudatus, pythons, wild pigs and fruit-eating bats are consumed in large numbers, the island’s rare endemic macaques seem only to sold more sporadically. The consumption of all these wild animals – and dogs – is traditional and not due to necessity, as it might seem. On special occasions and for festivities local people eat these animals as a delicacy. In the case of bats, they are not expensive to buy nor are only eaten by the well off; they appear on menus in restaurants (where they are called Paniki) at a reasonable price that all can afford. In the Saturday market of Pasar Beriman at Tomohon, one of the region’s four main markets, we counted over 500 bats on sale. After talking to a number of bat sellers in the market, as well as with local people and people who work in the tourist industry, we discover that these bats are not hunted locally but rather come from South Sulawesi. Recently, it seems, they are also being caught in Borneo since they are disappearing from Sulawesi. After visiting the Tangkoko National Park our guide confirms that he/she has never seen any large bats and that the babyrous, a locally endemic pig, has been hunted into extinction on the island.
One of the most surprising of all human-bat relationships that we found was on Sulawesi, where local people regularly consume bats as food. This island is a paradise for biodiversity and it is located in the heart of the biogeographical region known as Wallacea, where a singular evolutionary change has led to the development of a unique flora and fauna, halfway between the South-east Asiatic region and neighbouring Oceania. Sulawesi is home to a large number of endemic species — for example, of the island’s 127 mammals (of which half are bats), 79 are endemics, that is, they are found nowhere else in the world. Naturalists have traditionally paid more attention to the neighbouring islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Java, and we are surprised to discover that Sulawesi, even today, is not included in the guides that describe the flora and fauna of southern Asia. Even today, strangely, there are still worlds waiting to be discovered. The consumption of bats on Sulawesi has been a concern of conservationists for many years, and it is believed that bat numbers are falling worryingly as a result. Hoping to find out more about this custom and document it, we travel to the north of the island – here the majority of the population is Christian unlike the rest of the island – where traditionally all types of jungle creatures are eaten.