The Dark Cave Illuminated

08 February 2018

With a history dating back 100 million years, there is more to the Dark Cave than just spiders and rocks. We speak to the passionate group of young environmentalists who are working hard to preserve it.

If you’ve been to Batu Caves you’ve probably climbed the 272 steps to explore the temple cave at the top of the hill. But many visitors miss the inconspicuous pathway, about three-quarters of the way up to the top, leading to a lesser known part of the limestone hills called the Dark Cave.

Here, every morning a group of young Malaysians can be found sweeping away the debris from the day before, jotting down notes on their clipboards and preparing the waiting area – the entrance of the cave – in preparation for hundreds of curious visitors who are eager to learn more about the Dark Cave.

Since the 1890s, the Dark Cave’s 2km of passageways and labyrinths have attracted a variety of people including researchers, explorers and farmers looking for guano (bat droppings) to use as fertiliser.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), afraid of the irreversible damage being inflicted on the limestone hills, managed to successfully put an end to all quarrying activities at the cave. Subsequently, they gained permission from the Selangor state government to manage the Dark Cave.

Thanks to the society’s efforts, today the Dark Cave is a conservation and environmental education site. In 2011, MNS hired Cave Management Group Sdn Bhd to run educational tours through the cave and assist with conservation efforts. The team of passionate education officers raise awareness about the unique tropical cave system through educational and adventure tours open to the public.

Some of the species of spiders that dwell in the cave.

Getting to know the cave dwellers
Juliana Nordin, a senior education officer, has a keen interest in wildlife and is eager to share her knowledge of the weird and wonderful creatures that dwell in the cave. “There are 200 species of cave wildlife, 150 of which are invertebrates and many of them endemic to the Dark Cave including the rare trapdoor spider, spiny millipede and flat worm,” she explains.

Julia Nordin, a senior education officer, has a keen interest in wildlife.

“The cave is also home to ten species of bats – three fruit-eating species which use their eyes to navigate and seven insect-eating species that use echo-location to find their food,” she elaborates. “At last count, in 2011, there were over 200,000 bats in the passages of the cave.”

Depending on your luck, you may catch a glimpse of these bats or the other unusual creatures on your 45-minute walk through the cave.

Juliana highlighting a cave cricket during the tour.

Why caves matter
These creatures have adapted to cave life over millions of years. In fact, Juliana says that the Batu Caves hills themselves are anywhere between 60 to 100 million years old, and began forming over 400 million years ago.

As education officers, part of their role is to help visitors make sense of what they see at Dark Cave. While this cave may seem insignificant at first, a guided tour led by an education officer will most certainly reveal a fascinating and unexpected side to the cave, allowing you to appreciate why it should be preserved.

Streams of water wear away at the limestone rocks to form all sorts of fascinating patterns on the cave walls and ceilings.

“It is the information that you give and the interpretation that brings value to the cave,” says Dark Cave Management Group manager Nurul Hidayah, “because sometimes all people see are spiders and rocks but there is a lot more to understand in terms of wildlife and the natural history of the cave itself.”

One of the things that education officers teach visitors is the relationship between the cave wildlife and the outside world. “For example, we have bats that pollinate the fruits and flowers outside – they travel 50 to 60km away. Batu Caves, the Dark Cave, is one of their homes and if we destroy the caves we are destroying the pollinators,” explains Nurul.

Nurul Hidayah, team manager at Dark Cave.

“Conservation doesn’t work without education,” she continues. Only when people understand the significance of the tropical cave ecosystem are they able to spread the message.

“If the education stops, then the conservation stops as well.”

This process of educating and raising awareness drives both Nurul and Juliana to continue their work seven days a week. “I like environmental education and sharing with people because when they understand something, appreciate it, they are inspired to do something about it,” says Nurul.

“When kids come and say that this is really interesting and they want to explore more caves – that sense of achievement is something that keeps me going.”

This year, the team will continue their education efforts with plans to expose more school children to the wonders of caves through their cave and karst (limestone towers) conservation programmes.

Cave conservation and data collection
While the Dark Cave does welcome hundreds of visitors, the team takes extra measures to keep track of human impact on the cave’s ecosystem. Education officers collect daily data on the cave’s fauna and microclimate, the latter of which includes temperature, humidity and wind flow, carbon dioxide levels and the growth rate of stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Juliana notes that this might be the only study of its kind in a tropical cave system. “Most studies are short-term surveys of caves, while we monitor on a daily basis and work to develop methods to capture and analyse this data,” she says.

“It is very thrilling and we want to become a reference point for others doing similar work one day.”

Address: Dark Cave Conservation Site, Batu Caves Temple Complex, Jalan Batu Caves, 68100 Batu Caves, Selangor. Open Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 10.30am-5.30pm.  For more info on Dark Cave and its education and adventure tours, visit www.darkcavemalaysia.com.

By Tamanna Patel
Photos by Wong Yok Teng
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi

This article is related to NATURE BATU CAVES DARK CAVES CONSERVATION EDUCATION

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