Guest written by Estefania Ramirez.
The excitement emanating from me upon receiving this email still makes my heart stop and is something I wish other students to experience too.
This trip meant I would leave the American continent for the first time in my life. And what better place to visit than Africa, the dream place of any biologist? After over 72hrs of a long and emotional journey, I finally arrived at the hotel in Kenya where the course would take place. Near the entrance, I saw a group of Black-and-white colobuses, the first free-ranging primates I saw in my life! I also saw my first baobab tree, a huge tree located in the middle of the hotel. Later, I learned that elephants consume its fruits, thus contributing to the distribution of their seeds, and that bats pollinate its flowers!
The day passed, and I met each one of colleagues from different countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Peru, El Salvador, Mexico, among others, all gathered in this intensive course on bats. It was exciting to meet so many people with different nationalities and realize that we were all very similar to each other. In one way or another, we chose the same work line and therefore a similar style and philosophy of life, which helped us to bond and shape this new network of young bat researchers. I started to get acquainted with elements of the culture, such as the use of Tuk-Tuks (local cabs) as a means of transportation, the food that was surprisingly similar to some back at home, as well as local beers and tropical juices.
Theory classes and fieldwork began. During the first night, we caught species that were new to me: Neoromicia nana, Scotophilus trujilloi, Rousettus aegyptiacus and Epomophorus wahlbergi. In the mornings, we attended lectures given by bat experts, and at night we worked in the field capturing bats. We established a system in which we could all work on our projects at the same time. Some people were in charge of catching bats, others were processing them to take parasite samples, then the bat went to the team in charge of taking morphological data, then the geometric-morphometrics team, and finally to the acoustic teams to be released.
While this was happening, members of the Maasai tribe visited our hotel to sell crafts and performed a traditional dance that we had the opportunity to see and ended up joining! It was surprising to hear their songs, and how well-coordinated everyone was. The men formed into a square and started jumping to the unison, and you could see the coordination and power of their voices and jumps. At the same time, the women sang and danced, performing almost imperceptible chest movements, but powerful enough to make her huge necklaces spin, creating a spectacular dance.
The days continued, and also the fieldwork. We visit different caves with different stories. The first cave we visited was Shimoni Slave Cave; its name comes from the fact that in 1800 it was used to keep in confinement those people who were sold as slaves. Within the cave, fragments of chains remain as proof and reminder that this happened. Now, this cave is used as a tourist site, but it is also home to a population of bats. There I met who is now my favourite bat, Macronycteris gigas; one of the largest and strongest bats I have ever seen! The teachers showed us how to properly handle it, using different techniques that are developed with field experience.
Days later, we visited The Three Sisters caves, where the situation was a bit more chaotic. This cave was inhabited by safari ants, which, once they bite you, will not let you go easily, and you must remove them one by one. We learned this in situ when each one of us began to feel the bites! I think I was the first to feel them because I was going in the front accompanying the guide. As I felt how the ants began to climb up my legs and get under my clothes, the guide pointed to the ground crawling with these ants and took me to a rock so that I could take them off. I couldn’t believe that the guide was so calm without even wearing shoes – he was already used to it! After the first encounter with the safari ants was over, we proceeded to continue our work and began to process the captured bats.
Finally, the course came to an end and the students presented their projects. In the end, we received a diploma. It represented those ten days of working with the experts, ten days of living with 23 other students, all from different African and Latin American countries, and all of which passionate about the same objective: to work in pro of bats and to dedicate our lives to research.
I will take this experience with me for the rest of my life, and I would like everyone to have access to these types of opportunities. Now, the students and professors involved are creating the Global South Bats network so that all members can continue to develop their projects jointly on both continents. The course is planned to be held again with new students so that the network continues to grow. I look forward to its second edition, and to meet new members in the future!