The beleaguered bats of Kenyas Taita Hills face many of the same threats as bats and other wildlife in much of the world, especially the loss of habitat to expanding human populations, farming and logging. And, of course, few residents are aware of the benefits they get from bats. But an overriding threat, one that often thwarts conservationists and leads directly to the slaughter of bats, is the widespread belief in parts of Kenya that bats are linked to witches and evil spirits.
Largely because of this toxic myth, bat roosts are intentionally destroyed and lethal methods are used to eliminate bats from trees, caves, bridges and buildings. Children routinely kill bats on sight, while adults burn noxious plants or plastics to suffocate bats in their roosts, spray them with toxic insecticides or sabotage roost entrances with thorny branches that tear wings and skin.
There have been no efforts by government agencies or nonprofit organizations to challenge these destructive myths and create an appreciation for the ecological and economic importance of bats. Community-based action is essential for conserving these bats and education is the key. That is exactly what my colleagues and I have undertaken during the past year.
With a grant from Bat Conservation Internationals Global Grassroots Conservation Fund, we launched a broad-based community-education program. We met with villagers, farmers and schoolchildren, won the support of elders and influential pastors and delivered live educational broadcasts through a local radio station.
Our first step was to determine existing attitudes to help frame our planned educational efforts for maximum impact. Using questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, we examined what people know about bats, how they treat the flying mammals and whether they would consider conserving them. We questioned a total of 741 people residing in six administrative areas in three different ecological zones of the Wundanyi and Mwatate constituencies.
The results were striking, and somewhat disheartening: only 13 percent of those in our sample knew that bats are ecologically helpful, while 85 percent expressed negative attitudes about bats. One of the most common reasons for disdaining bats involved evil forces, although that varied significantly among these administrative areas. Other reasons included a social stigma associated with having bats in your home; the assumed loss of fruit crops to fruit bats; and the nuisance, damage and guano resulting from bats in buildings.
At this attitude-sampling stage, incidentally, we encountered many people who were reluctant to share their feelings for fear of some form of retaliation. We countered this challenge by convincing local officials and village elders to assure their residents that our project was valuable and that no one would be victimized for participating.
The support of those same leaders later proved invaluable in helping to convince residents to attend our presentations and workshops.
Our educational sessions were conducted in collaboration with the Office of the President (through the Provincial administration), Member of Parliament for Wundanyi Constituency, community elders and the Taita Taveta Wildlife ForumWundanyi Office.
We explained the importance of bats in pollinating and dispersing seeds for food crops such as bananas, avocados, pigeon peas, cashews and dates, and the role of insect-eating bats in helping to control agricultural pests.
Since the region depends heavily on agriculture, residents were especially fascinated to learn that bats hunt many moths, grasshoppers, plant hoppers, leafhoppers, beetles, aphids and other crop-damaging insects. We taught farmers how to minimize potential dangers to bats by modifying pesticide applications.
We also won Kenya Forest Service protection for a number of water sources (called water pans) in and around the forests in hopes of attracting bats by providing readily accessible water for drinking. Community leaders and schools near the forests have agreed to support this initiative.
We showed school officials how to inexpensively seal roof spaces and gaps to exclude bats humanely from classrooms and ceilings as opposed to simply killing them.
The project also designed and distributed bat-information brochures and posters that reinforce our key educational messages. Plus, a number of local pastors agreed to share our bat-conservation messages especially rejection of the evil-spirits myths with their congregations.
And a local radio station allowed us to broadcast eight 30-minute conservation programs in the local Taita language, as well as 30 one-minute daily messages. In these sessions, we raised awareness of bats ecological importance and also featured two pastors who dispelled the myth of bats as agents of evil.
The radio programs allowed listeners to call and ask questions, which proved popular. It also provided a phone line for people to express their views on the project. More than 1,790 opinions were logged, and 89 percent were supportive.
To test our impact after six months of education, we conducted another attitude-evaluation survey of 512 Taita Hills residents. Eighty-one percent reported positive perceptions of bats a truly dramatic improvement from our initial surveys.
We believe we accomplished a great deal in the Taita Hills during 2012. We plan now to use our success in education as a foundation on which to build sustainable bat-conservation efforts at the community level. We are preparing specific recommendations that will be submitted to the decision-makers and stakeholders of these communities and hope to help them actively protect their invaluable resource the bats of Taita Hills now and into the future.
DANIEL MWAMIDI is a student at Chepkoilel University College (a constituent of Moi University) in Kenya.
Mwamidi and his team hope to expand their educational work into concrete bat-conservation efforts in Kenyas Taita Hills. You can help support this Global Grassroots Conservation Fund Project and other critical bat-conservation projects. Go to: www.batcon.org/donate.