Bat conservation is struggling for a toehold in Kenya. Most people know very little about bats, have no sense at all of their value and often fear them as carriers of ghosts and evil spirits. Bat populations are collapsing in many parts of the country as agriculture, urban development and uncontrolled tourism threatens their cave and tree roosts.
That is the challenge facing a determined band of about a dozen bat enthusiasts – the Mammals Committee of Nature Kenya – who are trying to reverse the trends before it is too late.
Armed with a BCI Global Grassroots Conservation Fund grant, which is entirely supported by the Wallace Research Foundation of Tucson, Arizona, team leader Bernard Risky Agwanda launched a wide-ranging education effort last fall.
The first step was to survey members of six area tribal groups to determine the level of knowledge and the nature of their perceptions about bats in order to develop effective education programs.
Perceptions were almost uniformly negative, with the words “witchcraft” and “dirty” among the most often associated with bats.
The low level of public understanding was demonstrated by the fact that local languages typically have only one name for all bats, whether the fruit bats that are essential for regenerating commercially important hardwood forests or insect-eating bats that help control agricultural pests. Birds and rodents, meanwhile, are named to the genus and often the species level.
Initial education efforts focused on a group of children ages 5 to 9, barely a third of whom had ever seen a bat. Team members made a presentation that included photos and models of bats and gave the youngsters bat pictures to color. More elaborate presentations were given to older students and teachers; these introduced the biology, economic importance and conservation needs of bats.
Agwanda and his team also visited the Eburu Forest reserve and gave a bat-education talk to guides at the growing ecotourism site.
Also during the first six months of the project, team members began training volunteers in the use of their new mist nets and bat detector, with the goals of identifying new bat roosts and surveying bat populations along the Kenyan coast. They hope to establish a program to monitor the health of these colonies.
Agwanda is also developing educational materials to teach residents how to humanely exclude bats from homes and other buildings, where they now are routinely poisoned.
The challenges these volunteer conservationists face are enormous, but they are dedicated to protecting the bats of Kenya.
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