Emma Stone is a bat researcher at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and the founder of African Bat Conservation based in Malawi, which operates a local bat helpline and roost-monitoring project. She has worked in Africa since 1998 conducting research and managing community education and outreach projects. Here, Stone discusses changing perceptions of bats in Malawi and growing conservation efforts in the area.
Bats: What inspired you to start a bat helpline in Malawi?
Stone: Since setting up African Bat Conservation in Malawi in 2011, we started to receive many calls and enquiries about human-bat conflict. These ranged from the globally common issues such as bats roosting in the roof causing smell and noise, to bats stealing fruit crops. It was common place to be informed by people that they had bats in their loft and called pest control to gas them. As we are a small team, we quickly realized there are many more issues than we can deal with, and also that in many situations there are simple solutions and lack of understanding and appreciation that was the main problem. Receiving these enquiries and not having he capacity to act, inspired me to start the project with the aim of reducing mortality and raising awareness about the importance of bats.
Bats: How do the Malawi people view bats?
Stone: Most of the population have very negative perceptions about bats. In many parts of the country people believe that bats are witches or ancestors coming back to punish or taunt them. There are also some specific beliefs in some areas, such as the north where people believe that fruit bats roosting in a tree in the village will bring 10 years bad luck on the community, so therefore any bats in the area are actively persecuted. In general bats are considered pests. There is a severe lack of understanding of what bats are and what they do, why they are here. Even well educated people are generally unaware that there are more than one species of bat in the country, and in many schools children are taught that bats have no eyes.
Bats: What are the greatest risks to bats in Malawi?
Stone: Habitat loss and direct persecution. High levels of deforestation are reducing roosting opportunities and foraging habitats. Malawi has the second highest levels of deforestation in Southern Africa and a very high population density. These pressures are immense for a small country, and mean that bats have little space left. Direct persecution is high in Malawi due to fear of disease and witchcraft, the lack of understanding of and appreciation for bats in Malawi has a huge effect on the outcomes of conflict situations, and many roosts are destroyed and gassed year on year.
Bats: Are human-bat conflicts common in Malawi?
Stone: Very common. There is high bat diversity and abundance in Malawi and therefore most buildings in the villages and cities have bats present, including schools and churches. The types of conflict are similar to those experienced in Europe and the USA, with noise, smell and fear topping the list. As bats are not protected in Malawi, in most cases roosts are destroyed and animals sprayed when the pest control services are called in, or in the villages bats are simply entombed or smoked out. In some areas, where bats are roosting in caves, they are trapped each year and eaten. In the north of Malawi we have had incidences of children catching banana bats from Banana plants and tying string to their feet and trying to fly them like kites. Ultimately the bats are killed.
Bats: What do you hope to achieve with this project?
Stone: We hope to be able to reduce the levels of bat mortality and roost loss through direct intervention, providing advice and assistance to those people experiencing conflict. At the same time, this will allow us to educate communities about the role of bats in the environment, and the benefits for humans, e.g. eating mosquitos and agricultural insect pest control. In addition, through our site visits we gain scientific data for our roosting study, we learn about how and where bats roost in Malawi and use these sites for long term monitoring.
Bats: How has assistance from BCI been able to help you?
Stone: The funding from BCI has been critical in getting this project off the ground. To be able to reach people experiencing conflict we need a trained team with equipment, fuel and a project vehicle. Thanks to BCI we now have this and have started to conduct call outs and visits to people around Lilongwe the capital city. In addition, BCI are giving us expert advice and assistance, which is invaluable as we develop the project. We are a small grass roots charity with limited funds and grants and support such as that of BCI are invaluable to us.
WISHLIST: You can help fund projects like this by supporting our Small Grants Program. To donate please visit batcon.org/smallgrants