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Beryl Makori: Bats of Kenya’s Coastal Caves

Beryl Makori is a student at the University of Karatina and spends her time researching bats in coral caves in the North Coast of Kenya. Here’s her story…

Name: Beryl Makori

Habitat: Kenya’s Coastal Caves

Location: Kenya

Twitter: @MakoriBA

I am currently studying at Karatina University in Karatina, Kenya. I am due to graduate at the end of the year and will be starting my Masters in the same department shortly afterwards.

I have been passionate about conservation all my life and through the help of my professor Dr. Paul Webala, I got into what I enjoy doing; Conservation and research. I am currently working on bats in Kenya with a project in the coastal coral caves of Kenya. I also monitor Eidolon helvum in Western Kenya and other bat projects in Kenya under Dr. Webala.

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Why are you interested in bats?

My interest is on bats because, especially in Kenya, the focus is majorly on the big five and not many people have an understanding of bats.

I have started with a survey study of bats in the North coast of Kenya, which has numerous coral caves that are major roosting sites for bats in the region. Bats are very important in the ecosystem for their services e.g. they eat insects and thereby regulating their population, pollinate crops and other plants; they disperse seeds longer distances because they feed on the wing, among other reasons.

Are bats threatened and are there many different species of bats found in Kenya?

Bats, as with many any other species, are also threatened. Habitat loss, roost destruction, industrialization and misconceptions about them, among other things are putting them at risk.

Currently there are about 108 species of bats that have been documented to occur in Kenya, but this number may increase.

Bats have quite a bad reputation; in the UK lots of people are afraid of them! Is this the case in Kenya?

This might be worse in Kenya. Now with the rise of Ebola, it has worsened. A part from that, traditionally bats have been associated with bad omen and even deaths in different communities in Kenya. In my own community they think that if bats come into your compound someone will die, another community view bats as the cause of poverty…

ABOVE: Beryl at work in the early stages of her project.
"traditionally bats have been associated with bad omen and even deaths in different communities in Kenya… "
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Tell us about your research site?

My main project is based in the North coast of Kenya. I travel by bus to the coast of Kenya and using a taxi to go to my different study sites, I camp at Arabuko Sokoke forest and cook in the campsite.

Monitoring Eidolon helvum in western Kenya (under Dr. Webala Paul): I do the monitoring once every month. I travel by bus to the region and use a taxi to move between sites. I stay in hotels because the colonies are found in towns and farms. Western Kenya is a rainy place and most of the time it is very muddy and cold especially in the mornings. I count the bats in each of the colonies I am monitoring and ask around the locals if they are aware of any new colonies, which I map with a GPS and add to the list my colonies. I relay this information to Eidolon monitoring network.

Have you seen any other wildlife living in the caves?

Yes, I have found snakes, rodents and sometimes in caves on rocky places you find hyenas and other small carnivores.

Do you need lots of equipment for your fieldwork? Do you have to catch and handle them in the caves?

It depends what I am going to do, but mostly I just need a camera, camping gear, hand net, and the GPS. It is a challenge to carry bamboo poles and triple high nets by public means!

For my reconnaissance study I have to get a sample of all the bat species in all the caves I am working on. Now, I only trap and handle them when I find new individuals in the cave, because I can now identify by sight them using a species key.

LEFT: Coleura afra roosting in one of the coastal caves (photo by Jens Rydell). RIGHT: Triaenops afer (photo by Jens Rydell).
"Bats are amazing and being the second largest group of mammals after rodents, I feel they need to be recognized and in a good way just as any other wildlife."
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Earlier you mention that not many people have an understanding of bats, do they show an interest in your field work and research?

Yes people show interest in my fieldwork but with different reasons. Some want to learn more about them, others want to know why on earth I am studying bats! Some people are just curious because they have never seen a bat and know nothing about them.

One of your longer-term goals is to prioritise caves for conservation and encourage tourism. How would you persuade a potential tourist to come and see the bats?

Having in mind that not many people have seen bats, mainly because they are nocturnal and roost in areas that are not tourist attraction sites, tourists can break the monotony of always going to National parks and game reserves to see the big five or the large animals, and visit these caves to see bats up-close.

At the same time I am trying to create more awareness about bats and a source of livelihood to the people around the caves. Bats are amazing and being the second largest group of mammals after rodents, I feel they need to be recognized and in a good way just as any other wildlife.

What are the highlights of your project?

I enjoy working in the field. Working in western Kenya, and now Coastal Kenya, means I get to experience two very different environments. I really enjoy what I do, knowing that I am adding value to conservation and trying to change how people view bats, especially around my study sites.

…and the challenges?

The biggest challenge is how to get to my study sites because I don’t have a vehicle, which is especially problematic when I have to travel with a lot of equipment to the field, since public transport is not very reliable in these areas.

Climatic conditions around my study sites are also very extreme, the coast is extremely hot and the west is cold and rainy.

TOP: Entrance to one of the caves. Beryl, is focusing on three main cave systems; Makuruhu cave, Pangayambo cave and Watamu cave. MIDDLE LEFT: Counting Eidolon helvum in Western Kenya (photo by Jens Rydell). MIDDLE RIGHT: Beryl with her field assistant in one of the religious caves. BOTTOM: Hipposideros cafer (photo by Jens Rydell).

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Your Five ‘Top Tips’ for working in this environment or on this project:

1) Talk to the locals, let them at least know why you are there and they will be of great help when you create that relationship with them.

2) Always have appropriate clothing. The coast is very hot so it is best to wear light clothing; also it is essential to wear facemasks to prevent lung infection from the guano in the caves.

3) Respect the values of the communities living around the caves. For example, most of the caves are used for religious practises and they will require you to remove your shoes or cover your head.

4) Be flexible. Things sometimes don’t always work as planned.

5) Be well informed and updated about the situation around your study sites and the species you are dealing with; conservation is very dynamic and changes so often.

Are you optimistic for the future of conservation in Kenya? Are many young people getting involved?

I am very optimistic that we will have a great future in conservation here in Kenya. It only needs more effort to encourage the young generation as early as possible in primary and high school.

Young people are getting into conservation but very few, because our society still has the mind set of, one must be a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, and engineer etc to make an impact in the society. I never heard any one in my school years say they wanted to do conservation, but with the workshops and education extension that is now going on in schools, slowly by slowly things are changing.

And finally, an odd question, but do you have a favourite bat species?!

My favourite bat species is the Triaenops afer. It is found in two colour forms; grey and rufous forms, I like its complicated nose-leaf and how it echo-locates.

Thanks Beryl!

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