The cloud forests at the top of Malaita Island are still, mossy and the perfect place to discover new species of mammals.
My stay in East Kwaio was coming to the end. During our week we had met with chiefs and community leaders, experienced Kwaio kastom, learned about sightings of unknown mammals, and surveyed the surrounds of the Kwainaa’isi tribal area. So far, the species documented were relatively common, and the lack of larger species of flying-fox was noticeable.
East Kwaio people are experts at using hand woven nets to catch bats. They climb into the thin branches at the top of the forest canopy and place the net across small gaps in the foliage where flying-foxes are likely to transit. Whistles are crafted from native ginger plants and used to produce a squeak with an uncanny resemblance to a flying-fox. As bats are called into the net, a person perched 15-20 metres above the ground in the darkness, makes an upward sweep of the net using a long stick, securing the bats. It is an extraordinary and efficient method for hunting flying-foxes.
Person after person I interviewed in East Kwaio had no recollection of anything that resembled a monkey-faced bat and I was beginning to lose hope that Malaita may yet hold an undiscovered species of Pteralopex. That was until I met an animated character by the name of Diifaka with a tantalising description of a bat he once captured using one local net. In 1979 at Kwainaa’isi, he netted a flying fox unlike any he had seen before. It was large, with a body the width of his forearm, and dark in colour. On the belly was a patch of whitish coloured fur and in the middle of its back the hair was sparse. This was already a perfect description of other described species of monkey-faced bat found on Choiseul, Bougainville and Guadalcanal. However, most importantly he remarked upon the unusual teeth of the animal. The canine teeth of monkey-faced bats are almost unique among the world’s mammals in having two, rather than one cusp. They are evolved for crushing strong foods like nuts and hard fruits. The fact Diifaka identified the presence of double cusped canines on the bat he captured was convincing.
At times during our hike into the East Kwaio mountains, we had glimpsed, far way to the west, Kwaio’s highest peak (Mt Tolobusu). From what I had been told, the montane forests were less populated, less disturbed and seldom hunted. If a monkey-faced bat was still to be found on Malaita, I was convinced the higher peaks were the best place to start looking. One cool, windy morning as the dense mist rolled into Kwainaa’isi’s mountains, we set off for Malaita’s interior and Mt Tolobusu to inspect the forests and lay the foundations for a detailed survey.
From the coastal mountains we descended down into the middle of Malaita. As we left east Kwaio’s mountains, we also left the villages that still follow traditional kastom and began to find villages that have converted to Seventh Day Adventism. For the next two days we traversed the island following rivers and visiting isolated and picturesque villages. Eventually we reached a creek bed at the base of Tolubusu, the last place to rest before heading for the top of Malaita. Here, our team cut flat leaves, carefully placed them on the creek bed and began to lay out fire roasted taro and sweet potato, cooked rice parcelled in leaves, and tins of Solomon Blue tuna – the staple of any Solomon Islands expedition. While I was pleased to eat, I was also nervous about the bias towards these carbohydrate loaded, slow burning fuels. From Kwainaa’isi at 900m above sea level (asl) we had down to ~300m asl in the creek bed. The top of Mt Tolobusu I knew was over 1000m, but just how far over 1000m I wasn’t sure. Chief Esau made his way among the troupes and repeatedly encouraged us - kaikai boys! Rest fastaem! Then Iumi move!! (eat, rest and then move!).
By 4pm we had made it as far as 1000m and it was clear we wouldn’t make it to the summit of Tolobusu. We chose a flat camping site with access water and within 10 minutes there was a bush shelter to spend the night in. Throughout the night, the group made forays into the bush, returning with eels, freshwater shrimp, palm hearts and the young fronds of ferns to supplement the food we had brought.
The following morning after a restless night sleep we set off, arriving at Mt Tolobusu an hour later. At the top, the bush was still, moss covered and peaceful. As I sat at the summit, catching my breath, bright, metallic harlequin bugs swarming around a bright red flowering tree landed on me repeatedly. Through the moss covered branches I spotted a Malaita Fantail, unique to the upland forests of the island. From this viewpoint we surveyed the vast expanses of Malaita from East to West, marvelling at the size of the undisturbed forest. Wearing kapilato (traditional dress), Chief Esau told us about his vision to strengthen and link fledgling Kwaio conservation organisations and feed a new era of Kwaio led education, cultural revival and conservation.
It would be another two days before we arrived on the western coast of Malaita – the total journey from east to west had taken us 30 hours of walking over five days. The bush on Mt Tolobusu has been hard to shake from my mind. I am convinced if there is a monkey-faced bat to be found on Malaita – it will be on Tolobusu. In October we will return for a dedicated survey in the cloud forests, with camps already identified and land access negotiated.
Tyrone Lavery, AMRI Expedition Fellow
Dr Tyrone Lavery from the University of Queensland is the inaugural recipient of the Australian Museum Research Institute's Expedition Fellowship for 2015/16. Tyrone is playing a large part in AMRI's presence in the Solomon Islands over the coming months, where ground-breaking research on native mammal populations will take place. Tyrone's area of specialty is bats and rats, hence his important role in the Australian Museum's Solomon Island Expedition. Tyrone will be providing periodic updates on his involvement in this research expedition, which can be followed through our AMRI Blog feed.