Many wildlife enthusiasts are aware that the Pafuri area is an extraordinary place for birding. However few know that it harbours an exceptional bat biodiversity as well. Of South Africa's estimated fifty five species, about forty four have been recorded in this region.
Although other hotspots such as the Komatipoort area and St. Lucia Wetland Park are also quite rich, the country's 'bat capital' is firmly located at Pafuri.
It is the only place in South Africa where Commerson's roundleaf bat has been found, one of Africa's largest insectivorous species. Similarly for another scarce and formidable animal, the Madagascan large free-tailed bat. In fact, for most of the rare or localised species in this country, Pafuri somehow appears on the short list of places where that bat has been recorded.
Exactly why the area is so bountiful for bats is not clear to me. Since most of the species are found in the vicinity of riverine woodland, I would venture a guess that it has to do with the almost hostile semi-arid landscape being infused with sizable rivers such as the Luvuvhu and it's tributaries like the Mutale. The resultant oases of water and over abundant sunshine are perfect for plants and insects, and therefore bats and birds.
In addition, it is likely situated at the confluence of several vegetation and geological zones producing subtle but significant variations in habitat.
Unfortunately due to their nocturnal habits and generally secretive ways, the bats of Pafuri are somewhat harder to see than its birds. However their presence can still be enjoyed if one is aware of aspects of their behaviour.
Probably the easiest type of bat to get a glimpse of would be the epauletted fruit bats. They can usually be found in the vicinity of fruit trees, especially the Sycamore Fig, and a specimen in fruit is bound to attract them. There are several of these trees on the banks of the Mutale River and if you stand below one at night you are likely to hear the flapping of wings as these large bats with dove-sized bodies feed.
Typically they will fly into the tree, stuff their mouths with fruit and then fly off to eat it elsewhere. Sometimes they may stay in the tree so keep a torch in hand to look for them. Due to their excellent night vision their eyes will reflect in torchlight, much like the bushbabies that are also common at Pafuri.
There are two species of epauletted fruit bat here, the Gambian and Wahlberg's. They have very similar habits and are difficult to tell apart unless one is able to examine the ridges on the roof of their mouth, or check the width of their snout.
This family of bats is 'epauletted' because males have white shoulder patches that are normally hidden but can be revealed by raising them at will. When he is trying to attract a female he hangs in a tree making a continuous 'pinging' sound while synchronously raising his shoulder patches. (Click on the link below to hear this sound which is often heard in the camp and may be familiar : Pafuri River Camp epo fruit bat.mp3)
This is also good time to spot one of these bats as they are stationary while helping you to home in on their position.
Click to hear the sound of the Epauletted fruit bat.
Another type of bat that regularly advertises it's presence but is unlikely to be seen is the Little free-tailed bat. They make high pitch squeaks at night as they feed at some height above the camp. The bats are restricted to the warmer regions of the country and this squeaking is a characteristic nocturnal sound of the tropics.
Since free-tails feed in much the same zone and manner as swallows and swifts, one will seldom see one even if you shine a torch in the sky. In fact bat scientists usually only manage to catch them in their nets when they come down to drink from water bodies, or if the roost of the bat can be found. At Pafuri River Camp the nearest known Little free-tail roost is in the roof of the shop in the local village about two kilometres away as.um..the bat flies.
The feisty Little free-tail is a charismatic species and is reminiscent of a winged goblin with its wrinkled lips and curiously hairy Hobbit-like feet. To add to their rogue demeanor the males have a 'mohawk' courtship crest that can be erected at will.
Actually squeaking sounds overhead will not necessarily be this species and it is possible but less likely to be another type such as the common (but seemingly not as 'chatty') Egyptian free-tail or even the rare Madagascan large free-tail.
Probably the most common bat around the camp is the diminutive Schlieffen's bat. Dainty fawn coloured creatures, they have a habit of snarling when captured, as if they are terribly dangerous but actually they are completely harmless like all bats. During the day they hide away in crevices such as under the bark of trees. At night look for these cuties with a torch next to the river as they seem to prefer feeding near water and are perhaps beneficial consumers of mosquitoes in this malaria infested region. (Watch out for crocodiles).
Sitting around a camp fire there will be a range of bat species feeding all about you, flying amongst the trees and along the forest paths. Many of these are from a broad family that the lay man might refer to as "funny faced" bats, in contrast to "plain faced" bats like Schlieffen's. Take for instance the Bushveld horseshoe bat which, as its name suggests, seems to prefer the bushveld habitat.
The purpose of the strange facial adornments is the specialized transmission of sound that the bats use for navigation and finding prey in the dark, known as echolocation. Although all insectivorous bats use this sophisticated form of sonar, the funny faced ones tend to use their satellite dish type nose leaves to emit sound in a particular way. Their echolocation is suited to foraging at relatively slow speeds in cluttered wooded environments as opposed to say free-tail bats which usually feed at high speeds in the open sky above.
Another bat in the freaky looking family that gets their name from the shape of their nose leaf, is Rüppell's horseshoe bat. This is a Pafuri special and the only other place to see it in South Africa is in the northernmost reaches of the Northern Cape province. They hide by day in places like caves and cavities among large boulders and there is one known to roost in a hidden rocky overhang in the hill opposite Hornbill Chalet.
Related to the horseshoes is a particularly special animal that has only recently been found in the Pafuri region, the Short-eared trident bat. It has silky fur that appears almost golden, contrasting the dark frame of hair around the eyes and topped with quaint ears.
This fragile and attractive creature is named for its unusual fork-like projection which it uses to produce very high pitched echolocation calls to track its favourite prey of moths. Although it has never been an abundant bat anywhere, it was once more common and widespread but is now so scarce that it is considered critically endangered. Its discovery at Pafuri River Camp is therefore a bit of good news and it is nice to think that such a unique and threatened animal is happily zipping about, feeding on moths amongst the undergrowth around you, while you relax at a camp fire.
All the funny faced bats live in hollows in the form of caves, old mine tunnels, large holes in trees (especially baobabs) and even Aardvark burrows. Many 'cheat' by using man made structures such as abandoned buildings and in culverts under roads. Driving to Pafuri River Camp on the tar road there are actually horseshoes as well as other bats sleeping in the small bridges over the dry riverbeds by day.
Another type of bat, the Egyptian slit-faced bat, also uses the bridges as shelter, but during the night instead. In the day time they probably sleep in holes in baobabs and then disperse at night searching for moths, katydids and even sun spiders (solifuges) and scorpions. Using their large and impressive bunny-like ears they are able to locate their prey by the sounds they make as they scratch around in the leaf litter.
Once their prey has been caught, the slit-faced bat, as well as many of the funny faced species, will fly to its favourite secure feeding place and devour its meal. These secret dining places are known as night roosts and are actually not that hard to find if you know what to look for ; favoured sites include the quieter camp toilets and others such as under lapas, trees, caves, culverts, in fact anywhere that is sheltered from the elements and predators and not disturbed too much at night. They will be recognized by the piles of bat droppings as well as inedible insect pieces such as wings and legs that have accumulated on the ground below where the bat perches. If one of the these night roosts are found sometimes a 'stakeout' will result in a sighting of the bat.