Sau Niki, which literally means “harvesting bats”, has been held once every three years since 1819. This year, the three-day event was held from July 28 to July 30.
“This unique tradition of harvesting the nocturnal animals has taken place for generations and was inherited from our ancestors. The last Sau Niki was held in 2012,” Tohe Leten village chief Yonas Engelbert recently told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the event.
Yonas said that a traditional ritual, led by a tribal chief, must be carried out three days before the Sau Niki at the entrance of a bat cave in the village. During the ritual, an animal is slaughtered and its blood is smeared at the cave entrance.
“The ritual is aimed at asking for blessings from our ancestors during the harvest so it will take place smoothly and without obstacles,” he said.
Sau Niki, according to Yonas, is a very sacred tradition, with only men allowed to enter the cave and collect the bats during the festival.
Those taking part in the bat harvest inside the cave must also be bare-chested and are not allowed to wear jewelry or carry metal items. It is believed that those who disobey the rules will be unable to leave the cave.
“Participants must be shirtless as the belief remains sacred. Those who go against the belief will get lost inside the cave,” he said.
Bat meat, which has a low fat content and is high in protein, has become part of the diets of people in some parts of the country, including in Belu, located around 250 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital of Kupang.
Prior to entering the cave to harvest the bats, Sau Niki participants burn a traditional potion containing leaves and roots at the entrance of the cave. The smoke forces the bats inside the cave to immediately fly out.
“The smoke can also make the bats unconscious. Participants of the event can easily take the bats that are lying unconscious or dead inside the cave,” Uma Mane Sanulu Dato Mane tribal chief Simon Dotik said.
Over 200 people entered the cave during this year’s Sau Niki celebration, harvesting around 1,200 bats that were later divided equally with local residents who waited outside the cave.
“The yield this year has dropped because participants were too quick in making the fire at the cave entrance before they received the order from the tribal chief. In each of the previous celebrations, we could harvest between 4,000 and 5,000 bats,” Yonas said.
Belu acting regent Wellem Foni said the Belu regional administration supported the Sau Niki festival and called on residents of Tohe Leten village to preserve the local tradition. The event, he said, was very unique and could become a potential tourist attraction in the regency.
“The bat-harvesting tradition must be preserved and at the same time can be introduced as a tourist attraction to draw domestic and foreign visitors,” Wellem said.