The bat and the rat

Protecting the Kwaio culture and their land is what led Lavery and his fellow scientists to that ancestral shrine in July. Lavery, a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum, has spent three years exploring the forests of Malaita, beginning in 2016 with a fellowship from the Australian Museum Research Institute. In that time, he’s seen firsthand the threat of development closing in on Malaita.

Elsewhere in the Solomon Islands, logging and mining interests, aimed at extracting resources such as timber, gold, nickel, silver, and an ore called bauxite used in the production of aluminum, have decimated the islands’ delicate ecosystems as the country struggles to climb out of poverty.

Lavery also knows that staving off that destruction in Malaita’s mist-dappled mountains, however remarkable, won’t be an easy sell. So he’s set out to find unique species that scientists have long thought were extinct on the island. Their presence, he hopes, would justify further protections for the area. Absent a catalog of such endemic species, Lavery said that this part of Malaita is unlikely to be seen as “a big conservation priority.”

Specifically, he’s been looking for a monkey-faced fruit bat (Pteralopex sp.) and a giant rat in the genus Uromys or possibly Solomys. Kwaio elders talk of using the rat’s teeth, bones and tendons, and Kekeubata said that he saw one, known as kwete in Kwaio, as recently as 2002. Then, just a few years ago, Lavery turned up nut husks with what looked like distinctive markings from the rat’s teeth, said to be so strong they can tear open a coconut.

He pulled off a similar feat on the island of Vangunu in the Solomon Islands’ Western province: After “five years of off-and-on work,” Lavery alerted the scientific community to a new species of endemic giant rat, Uromys vika, in 2017.

“That makes me feel like in Malaita we can do the same thing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time, really, and not giving up.”

A roadblock to conservation

Recently, however, Kekeubata and other Kwaio leaders cautioned Lavery and the two other scientists that residual tension has made it unsafe to continue working on their projects. Tim Flannery, a mammalogist based at the Australian Museum in Sydney, first visited the Kwaio in the late 1980s, and he has been involved in community-led conservation to protect the region’s wildlife since 2015. David MacLaren, a public health researcher at James Cook University in Australia, first came to this part of Malaita in 1992 as a volunteer laboratory scientist in the local hospital and subsequently wrote his doctoral dissertation in medical anthropology about the Kwaio.

Even before the events of 1927, a rift — exacerbated by forced labor on sugarcane plantations, conversions stemming from contact with missionaries, and the push to establish British colonial rule — had begun to splinter the Kwaio themselves.

Since then, it’s become clear to Kekeubata and other community leaders that the lingering effects of that conflict have stymied the tribe’s integration into the broader, diverse fabric of the Solomon Islands. The country’s more than 900 islands stretch out across a hard-to-govern 854,000 square kilometers (330,000 square miles) of the southern Pacific Ocean and are home to at least 80 different language groups. The Solomons’ complexity can, at times, be a recipe for internal strife and division.

For the Kwaio, the divisions in their own society since the late ’20s have bubbled up at times with disastrous consequences. In 2003, a Kwaio man killed — beheaded, actually — an Australian missionary, reportedly because the Kwaio man had been refused passage on a boat chartered by the mission when he couldn’t pay.

Threats of this type of violence have helped fuel the Kwaios’ smoldering — and frankly racist — reputation for savagery that goes back to colonial times. MacLaren said the bad rap helped to further isolate the traditional Kwaio from the rest of the community.

Despite those barriers, outsiders like MacLaren made inroads by connecting with Kwaio leaders. Shortly after his arrival in the 1990s, MacLaren noticed that Chief Kekeubata was working to bridge that divide.

“Once a month, he would walk down from the mountains to the regional hospital and then coordinate an immunization team to go back up,” MacLaren said.

As their friendship developed, they began to work together to bring together traditional healing and Western medicine to serve both the Christian and traditional Kwaio groups.

Kwaio and Australian scientists are working together to find a giant rat and a monkey-faced bat on the island of Malaita. Image © Ben Speare, courtesy of the Field Museum.

By 2014, Kekeubata, MacLaren, and Kekeubata’s son, Tommy Esau, who are all members of the Malaita-based Atofi Health Research Group, began cataloging the cultural knowledge of the plants in the surrounding rainforest. They’ve captured this “living pharmacy,” as MacLaren calls it, in a series of publications, books and videos.

“If you have a cut, if you have diarrhea, if you have a headache, there is almost always plants [to treat those conditions],” he said, “and I’ve benefited from that.”

MacLaren said he hopes that documenting this natural pharmacy could help to prove that its value goes far beyond the monetary gains that mining or timber production might bring, just as Lavery’s discovery of new mammal species would.

But recently, the traditional Kwaio leaders have voiced concerns about moving forward with these collaborations without addressing the past. As more outside scientists began partnering with Kwaio leaders, their ancestors were said to have become unsettled.

“Esau [Kekeubata] and some of the other chiefs sat me down and said, ‘David, we’ve been talking for many, many years about the need for reconciliation and the need to sort out the 1927 issue,’” MacLaren said.

“When we do the work with the scientists, our ancestors were angry,” Kekeubata told Mongabay. “And the ancestors were showing us some signs” — such as unexplained disease and accidents — “that [they] are not happy.”

To assuage the ancestors, Kekeubata told MacLaren, Kwaio culture demanded formal reconciliation.

High in the mountains of Malaita

So after months of planning, in July 2018, MacLaren, Lavery and Tim Flannery find themselves standing within the ancestral shrine, flanked by Kekeubata and perhaps a dozen Kwaio elders. The day before, an arduous 10-hour trek brought them to this mountainous corner of the Solomon Islands.

According to Flannery’s journal of the events, he approaches the shrine, a small leaf-thatched shelter with three men sitting in it. He’s handed a piglet, which he soon passes to the leader of the ritual, a traditional priest named Diifaka.

Diifaka “lets out a deep wail and recites a line in Kwaio I don’t understand, except for the words ‘Australia,’ ‘England’ and ‘Kwaio,’” Flannery writes. The priest hands the pig to his son, who brushes it with a bunch of leaves before giving it back to Flannery. This cycle of exchange continues as Diifaka calls out dozens upon dozens of names, his voice occasionally stumbling as his emotions get the better of him. Flannery recalls that the men standing behind him were also crying throughout the process.

Then, in an act symbolizing friendship, Diifaka shares a betel nut with Flannery, before sweeping the leaves that touched the pig over Flannery, Lavery, MacLaren, and the other men at the shrine.

“The ancestral spirits now recognise us,” Flannery writes. “Our generation can now continue as friends, as partners.” With that, the ceremony finishes for the day.

Looking out from high in Malaita’s mountains. Image © Ben Speare, courtesy of the Field Museum.

The next morning, Flannery, MacLaren and Lavery stand in a line, each holding a piglet, again drenched in the near-constant rain. Kekeubata explains that the piglets represent the spirits of the ancestors who were hanged. One by one, each of the scientists hands a pig to a clan leader. Each leader then, in turn, offers shell money as recompense for the deaths of the British killed by Basiana’s warriors in 1927.

“The ceremony [was about] bringing our peoples — our tribes — into a loving and respectful relationship,” MacLaren said. “It was probably the most profound thing that I’ve ever done in my life.”

Still, he knows the ritual is of broader importance.

“This is one step in a long process,” he said. Both sides understand “this is not just a simplistic or naïve silver bullet, that all we need to do is have this nice ceremony and the world is a good place and we all can continue.”

In a short essay in the journal Nature, published Nov. 28, 2018, the scientists, Kekeubata and Tommy Esau said the ceremony was “a beginning to peace among Kwaio tribes, Malaita, the Solomon Islands and ultimately with Britain.”

To Lavery’s mind, it was less about representing Australia than relieving the pain his Kwaio friends felt.

“I did feel as though my presence was merely symbolic,” he said, “but even though it felt that way, it was clear that was all that was needed to genuinely reconcile the issues between Australia and Kwaio.”

A step toward peace

In the end, the tense atmosphere that Lavery noticed early on at the ancestral shrine gave way to celebration and release from decades of heartache, the ceremony’s success holding the promise of a more peaceful future for the Kwaio. Kekeubata said he thinks it could allow the traditional Kwaio to forge new bonds with the Christian members of their tribe and, beyond that, with other groups on the island of Malaita and across the Solomon Islands.

Of course, the reconciliation also makes it possible for the scientists to continue working with the Kwaio to protect their homeland. MacLaren plans to keep up his work cataloging the botanical medicines and foods with Tommy Esau and Kekeubata, whom he considers one of his “best friends in the world.”

Even before the ceremony, the local conservationists with whom Flannery had been working had already tallied a few successes: Feral cats, quite possibly the reason that the kwete rats are now so rare, also once terrorized the amphibians living in this part of Malaita. But they’re just about gone after a suppression program in some locally managed community conservation areas. And hunting in the highlands has tapered off, allowing some bird species to return.

Lavery’s quest for a corpulent rat and a monkey-faced bat continues.

“That’s all I’ve been doing there is really just trying to find those species so that we can show the world that Malaita is worth preserving,” he said.

The chewed nut shells that Lavery’s team found notwithstanding, the animals remain elusive. But now, thanks in part to the trust the scientists and the Kwaio have developed, it seems as though this community in the Solomon Islands is nearer than ever to tracking down a peace that has similarly eluded them for nearly a century.

“The incident has left some dark chapters in the minds of our people. It’s been in their minds and in their thinking,” Tommy Esau said. With the first step in reconciliation behind them, he said, their conservation work has become a vehicle to preserving the Kwaio themselves.

“It’s a way forward for us if we want to keep our environment and culture,” he said, “and for the next generation to benefit, we have to preserve our environment.”

Banner image of Malaita © Ben Speare, courtesy of the Field Museum. The Field Museum and the Australian Museum also produced an interactive, 360-degree video of Malaita.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Lavery, T. H., & Judge, H. (2017). A new species of giant rat (Muridae, Uromys) from Vangunu, Solomon Islands. Journal of Mammalogy, 98(6), 1518-1530.

Lavery, T., Kekeubata, E., Esau, T., Flannery, T., MacLaren, D., & Waneagea, J. (2018). Rat and bat hunt helped heal rift from colonial cruelty. Nature, 563(7733), 626.

MacLaren, D. (2007). Culturally Appropriate Health Care in Kwaio, Solomon Islands: An Action Research Approach.

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