Gwihaba and Koanaka Cave System Project

When an invitation came via Rodger Ellis (Potchefstroom Potholing Club) from the Botswana Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Hon Minister T. Khama to visit the Gcwihaba Cave to provide advice on the bats in the cave, how could one refuse?  With a seven day trip planned for the 19 – 25 February, and with a spot for an assistant to join, Mariëtte Pretorius jumped at the opportunity.  With less than 48 hrs to prepare and assist with the Friends of Doornkloof Spruit event on the Saturday evening, things were rushed to prepare for Monday’s departure.

Monday was a day’s drive to Gaborone, where we spent the night at the Crest Lodge.

Tuesday morning we were taken to the Gaborone airport, where a Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks pilot and Kodiak Quest airplane were waiting to fly us to Xai Xai.   Arriving on this remote airstrip we were transported via vehicle to our tented camp, near the Gcwihaba Cave. After a quick lunch, we kitted up for an orientation walk through the caves on the purposed tourist route, guided by Rodger Ellis, together with Sean Boyce and Jean Oosthuizen (Movie Vision – Southern Lighting Solutions).  Sean and Jean were there to look at the lighting of the tourist route and cave features. Our purpose was to examine the Gcwihaba Cave for bats, make recommendations and look at future research and opportunities at the site.

Wednesday, we went back underground, this time assisted by Oaitse Ludimo (Geologist with the Department of National Museums and Monuments). Using the Gcwihaba Cave map, we grouped our observations of different bat species into the various cave sections.  Roosting bats were visually identified (family/genus level) and estimates of population size were recorded for each section of the cave. With the use of an Anabat Walkabout bat detector, echolocation calls of roosting and flying bats were recorded in each section.  At least three species from three families were observed and recorded during this visit – Slit-faced Bats (Nycteris), Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus), and Striped Leaf-nosed Bat (Macronycteris vittatus). From our conservative estimates for each of the three groups of bats, the population within the cave ranges between 5000 – 10,000 individuals per species.  Future visits are already being planned in partnership with the Botswana National Museum, where we will be able to conduct more detailed investigations and bat captures.

Thursday was spent analysing bat echolocation calls and preparing a presentation for the meeting planned for Friday.

Minister Tshekedi Khama intended to fly to the site with the project team on Friday.  However, due to adverse weather conditions in Gaborone, the Wildlife plane was grounded.  Not knowing if the weather conditions would improve, it was decided that the project team should travel by vehicle to Maun.  It was a nail-biting road trip, in the dark with cattle and donkeys on the road.  But our drivers from the Botswana Tourism Organization got us to Maun safely.

Saturday morning we checked out of the Maun Lodge, expecting the Wildlife plane to pick us up at Maun airport at around 10h00, we were informed that the plane was again delayed due to poor weather.  The Wildlife plane arrived around 12h30, and we were informed by the pilot that he almost did not leave Gaborone due to the poor weather.  We were most grateful that he braved the rainstorms to come and fetch us. After packing the plane we headed south-west, back to Gaborone.  Due to the thick and low-hanging rain clouds, it was a low altitude flight with a zig-zag course to miss the approaching thunderstorms in our flight path. The low altitude gave us the opportunity to spot a herd of elephant and other game.  With a perfect landing in Gaborone, we were taken to the Botswana Tourism Organization offices to make our presentations to Minister T. Khama. The meeting was insightful and positive, the first steps in establishing and building bat biologists within Botswana – with the first projects centered on gaining an understanding of the ecology of the bats of the Gcwihaba and Koanaka Cave System Project.

A special thanks to Gorata Lekoko (Botswana Tourism Organization) for all her work in arranging accommodation, transport and everything else in between.

A few choice images from the trip in the gallery below: