Zambia Bat Migration
An orange hue floods the wetlands as the sun approaches the horizon and the crooked black silhouettes of the mahogany and milkwood trees start to move. Sagging branches pop back into place relieved of the weight of puppy-sizes mammals that have slept the night through, so tightly packed that some are clinging onto others rather than touching the branches themselves. This morning, the bats are starting the first of two daily ascents to the sky in search of the plentiful wild fruits found here at this time of year. Starting at sunset, they depart the drooping branches of the trees, flocking to the sky in what is thought to be the world’s largest mammal migration.
The sky fills with the chatter of these graceful animals as they dart in and out of the trees, casting a dark, could-like mass in the sky, looking from a distance like a swarm of bees. Towards the end of November, over 8 million of these straw-coloured fruit bats will have flooded the area.
That’s an incredible three thousand metric tonnes of bat, some with a wing-span up to a metre in length.
This unique event is one of the world’s best kept secrets and for years this startling sight has remained unseen and unheard of to the majority of travellers and even those in the industry. Taking place in one area throughout just a few months means that your safari has to be impeccably timed.
Where and when
The bats start to arrive in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park towards the end of October in search of the seed-rich fruits that fill the trees. The number of these giant African bats steadily increases throughout the next few weeks as they traipse over from the Congo, eventually reaching over 8 million bats, all in a space no larger than a hectare.
Each day at dusk they set out to munch on the succulent, colourful fruits that surround them. First the scouts fly out, followed by the entire colony which disperses over a 360 degree radius in search of food. In the morning they tumble into the trees, pushing and shoving, noisily clambering over each other to find a comfy space in which to hang upside down and catch some shut-eye. The area is so densely covered in bats, that it is not uncommon for the branches to snap, sending these bulky, and now bloated from fruit, critters hurtling ungracefully to the ground.
The great bat migration has many factors to it, leading to the bats being one of the most important migratory animals when it comes to regenerating the forests of Africa. It has been found that these amazing bats (Eidolon helvum) can consume nearly twice their bodyweight in fruit per night and when you combine that fact with the sheer number of bats, that’s nearly 6,000 tons of the tasty wild loquat, waterberry and red milkwood eaten. Along their lengthy migration and nightly forages, they spread seeds through their faeces, assisting the growth of the land.
Research has shown that the female bats are either pregnant or nursing pups at the time of the migration, and the abundant fruit in the area helps support the increased energy levels they require.
How can I see the great bat migration?
There are just two accommodations in the area from which you can see the bats, both managed by the not-for-profit Kasanka Trust organisation. We recommend staying at Wasa Lodge which has fantastic views over a lake, popular with a myriad of bird species and wallowing hippos.
The camp is accessed via a charter flight from Lusaka to the Kasanka Airstrip, which is about a 1.5 hour flight. We recommend staying for two or three days which gives you time to witness the bats and explore everything else Kasanka has to offer.
Each afternoon you leave the camp, embarking on a guided game drive to the forest, where you will start your short walk to the bat hide. Sipping on sundowners and quietly munching on tasty snacks, you watch as the bats begin their exodus over the setting sun. You will then be taken back the camp on a spotlight night drive discovering Kasanka’s nocturnal wildlife before heading back for dinner. Morning visits to the hide can also be arranged to see the bats come back after their nightly feast.
This time in Kasanka isn’t just great for seeing the bats; with green grass, bright flowers and hoards of migratory birds providing plenty of visual treats. Although this isn’t a spot for scouring out the big five you can often see monkeys, civets, hippos, elephants and even sitatunga.
Best time to go
Mid-October to mid-December. By the end of December / beginning of January, the wetlands are bat-less.