Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Overcoming old attitudes at high altitude.

BCT member Caroline Ware 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 and functional cloth.

Along the nettle trail in Sankhuwasabha – Spinning nettle fibre
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 bird species. But when I asked about the bats found there, I was told that Nepalis 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. Initial results have been published in Bats of Nepal, A SMCRF Field Guide, by Sanjan and his colleagues. Sanjan is now focusing on the taxonomy of four genera Pipistrellus, Eptesicus, Hypsugo and Myotis.

Hypsugo sp © Sanjan Thapa
Parallel to this taxonomic research, Sanjan is working on an educational and engagement project in the more remote areas of Nepal, because, as he says, ‘understanding and influencing people’s attitudes towards bats is the foundation of successful conservation’.
On the advice of Malcolm Pearch of the Harrison Institute (http://www.harrison-institute.org), I’d sent Sanjan a few echolocation records that I’d collected along the nettle trail in 2010. Almost by return I was sent a draft of Altitudinal Variation in Bats, Understanding People’s Perceptions to Bats and Creating a Bat Conservation Awareness in Sagarmatha (Everest) Zone, Eastern Nepal, by Sanjan and others.
While I was in Nepal this time, he invited me to drop in on a project he was running in the village of Madi, a ‘two-hour walk’ from Chainpur – the former capital of Sankhuwasabha and a short detour from the nettle trail.
            The project is called Living with Villagers, a volunteering scheme attached to the SMCRF and Sanjan’s personal initiative. He was spending approximately nine months teaching biology and chemistry to Year 11 and 12 pupils at Madi High School before moving to other schools around Nepal. His pay includes board and all meals and he takes home £200/month. Now in the second year of Living with Villagers, Sanjan is based at a school in Barabisse in Sindhupalchowk district, west of Sankhuwasabha, 86 kilometres north east of Kathmandu. A placement in Gorkha in west Nepal is planned for 2014/15 with Years 4 and 5 of the initiative still to be decided.

During this time Sanjan will also continue his taxonomic research, which he hopes will eventually be converted to a PhD thesis, subject to funding.
Back to Madi. Although I had brought along my bat detector and recorder, and Sanjan had added my few observations to a very long list of echolocations and sightings in his notebook, I had a feeling there was another motive for my being invited to Madi – 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 asked to accompany him back to the school after noon 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.
A class of 60 students, aged 14 to 15 years old, were waiting with excitement. I helped hand out drawing paper and packets of wax crayons before Sanjan explained that everyone must draw a bat or whatever they know about bats. This sparked much discussion and chattering, which also brought a gaggle of younger children from outside, giggling around the door.

In the classroom - getting started

Ang Diku translated what the students were saying, while Sanjan tried to send the younger children away.
            Why do we have to draw a bat?
‘We don’t know how to draw a bat,
Can I draw anything else apart from a bat?’

How do we draw a bat...?
The drawing competition was taking place during their free time, so not surprisingly they were feeling a bit rebellious, but eventually they settled.

Making progress...

Adding the details..

Concentration - time's nearly up....
Some 40 minutes later the drawings were completed and we returned to Sanjan’s house with the art work. Most 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, but many looked very bird-like. Just a few showed a detailed understanding of the anatomy, including bone structure.
Choosing the competition winners

Photo 10: And the winners are...
The drawing competition is the first phase of an education programme in the school, looking at local people’s perceptions of bats, and this will be followed by scheduled surveys. Over the next two to three months Sanjan planned to introduce these students to bat conservation and teach them about the essential role they play in the natural and economic world, such as seed dispersers, pollinators and agricultural pest controllers. Teaching material includes videos provided by Bat Conservation International, posters of different species of bats produced by SMCRF, and material from Bat Conservation Trust that I had brought along, including the Green City Bats project resource pack and copies of the Young Bat Worker.
Sanjan distributing posters to the same class later in the year. © Mr. Shiba Raj Subedi
After the teaching sessions Sanjan will ask the students to take part in another bat drawing competition. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
This educational project is designed to further people’s understanding of bats and their role in the ecosystem. And just as bat workers find here, 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 village, superstitions about bats as nocturnal animals will gradually be eroded and it’s hoped will inspire a wider bat conservation movement in Nepal.

Sanjan teaching about bats to the same class later in the year
 © Mr. Shiba Raj Subedi
The work of Sanjan is inspirational. Not only is he taking on attitudes that are embedded in Nepali 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.
But Sanjan and these bats also need help – either through grants or loan of bat monitoring equipment.

Other bats around Madi include Rhinolophus lepidus © Sanjan Thapa

For more information about this project see Sanjan’s article "Living with Villagers" in Small Mammal Mail:  http://www.zoosprint.org/ZoosPrintNewsLetter/2014_Vol.5_No.2_SMM.pdfI or contact Sanjan at thapasanjan@gmail.com

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