Overcoming old attitudes at high altitude.
Caroline Ware is a BCT member and also works at London’s Natural History Museum wildlife garden. She helps organise the annual bat festival event at the museum which took place on July 5th and 6th this year. Here she shares her experiences of the ‘Living With Villagers’ project helping educate young people about bats in Nepal.
The main focus of my recent trips to Sankhuwasabha in eastern Nepal was not bats but the Himalayan giant nettle. This led me along a sinuous trail through the foothills of the Himalayas, to villages where the nettle is harvested and skilfully transformed into beautiful textiles.
There were of course several amazing distractions along the way, such as a trip to Chitwan National Park where we saw rhinos, elephants, crocodiles and many exotic birds. But when I asked about bats, I was told that Nepalese people do not spend time looking at nocturnal animals, in fact they regard people who do as ‘eccentric and inauspicious’. I didn’t ask again but continued my journey with bat detector at hand. Eventually, I met someone who not only spends time watching nocturnal animals but who is working positively to change attitudes towards them.
Sanjan Thapa works with the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) in Kathmandu. His mission is to improve the survival of bats in his country, while at the same time pioneering work to classify them. There are 53 known bat species in Nepal and work is in progress to update and validate this list. Parallel to this research, Sanjan is working on an educational project in remote areas of Nepal because, as he says, ‘understanding and influencing people’s attitudes towards bats is the foundation of successful conservation’.
Living with Villagers
He invited me to visit a project in the village of Madi, a ‘two-hour walk’ from Chainpur. The project, Living with Villagers, is a five-year volunteer scheme attached to the SMCRF and Sanjan’s personal initiative. It involves 9-month long placements in teaching posts in different areas of Nepal. At the time of my visit he was based at Madi High School teaching biology and chemistry to Year 11 and 12 pupils.
Although I had brought along my bat detector, and Sanjan had added my few observations to his notebook, I had a feeling there was another motive for my being invited – the reason my friend Ang Diku Sherpa and I had spent nearly four hours walking the ‘two-hour’ route from Chainpur to Madi.
And yes, I was firmly told that we must accompany him to the school and help supervise an art competition, from which I must pick three drawings that best demonstrate awareness about bats and their role in the environment.
Concentration - one of Sanjan's students draws a bat
A class of 61 14 and 15 year old students were waiting with excitement. I Sanjan explained that everyone must draw a bat or whatever they know about bats. Many of the drawings showed a basic understanding of bats, that they used banana trees, liked fruit and lived in caves. Some of the better artists captured the wing shape nicely; just a few showed a detailed understanding of the anatomy, including bone structure.
'And the winner is...' - Choosing the competition winner
The project also looks at local people’s perceptions of bats through surveys and interviews. Sanjan planned to introduce the students to bat conservation and teach them about the essential role bats play in the natural and economic world, as seed dispersers, pollinators and agricultural pest controllers. Teaching material includes videos provided by Bat Conservation International, posters produced by SMCRF, and BCT material that I had brought.
Shaking off superstitions
As bat workers here find, working on activities for and with children helps to instil an enthusiasm and interest across generations. By creating awareness among the students, and by extension their families and others in the villages, superstitions about bats as nocturnal animals will gradually be eroded and, it’s hoped, will inspire a wider bat conservation movement in Nepal.
The work of Sanjan is inspirational. Not only is he taking on attitudes that are embedded in Nepalese culture, but his project is self-funded through his teaching posts, and he has taken on important taxonomic research in a country with three times more bats species than Britain.