Read what life is like in the ABC research camp from our volunteers!
4 weeks with ABC
In June 2015 I was nearing the end of my MSc degree and was ready for a new adventure. After being shown the African Bat Conservation website I didn’t need much convincing to sign up for 4 weeks. This project excited me because, unlike similar organisations, it offered the opportunity to contribute to scientific research. Time flew, and before I knew it, it was September and I was waving goodbye to my family at the airport wondering what I’d let myself in for.
After about 30 hours of travelling I arrived in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. After a long sleep at Mabuya Camp I was ready for the final leg of my journey to Liwonde National Park. The journey was interesting to say the least; Malawian minibuses, or matolas, do not run to a timetable, they leave only when they physically can’t squeeze any more people on board. Suffice to say one person per seat does not apply. So packed full with an enormous sack of cabbages, several chickens and at least two people per seat we embarked on the 6 hour journey to Liwonde, stopping only to squash more people on. I was met in Liwonde by the rest of the bat team and we headed for camp. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first trip across the river. Although it was dark, I still heard and saw many new animals including hippos, crocodiles and elephants. On arrival at camp that evening I was introduced to the other volunteers and staff, had dinner and headed to bed.
Camp – first impressions
The first thing that struck me about camp, before I’d even left my tent the first morning, were the sounds: hippos roaring from the nearby river, the rustling of lizards as they ran along the roof of the tent, and birds singing their hearts out. There is wildlife everywhere; vervet monkeys playing in the treetops, baboons casually walking around, warthogs grazing peacefully on bended knees. However, some animals were less welcome in camp, particularly the army of ants that had made it their mission to steal our food.
Most evenings were spent conducting bat surveys. This involves putting up two mist nets and two harp traps, checking them regularly, about every ten minutes, for captured bats and processing bats that are caught; recording their weight and various measurements such as ear length, thumb length and tail length, wing punching, ringing and recording their echolocation calls as they are released. Untangling a struggling bat from a mist net is challenging, but with a little practice I soon got the hang of it. The bats we caught were amazing from feisty little white bellied house bats and black and white Ruppell’s pipistrelles to fruit bats with their huge eyes and dog-like faces. Every survey was exciting because you never knew what you might catch.
But bats weren’t the only animals we encountered on these surveys. On one particular riverine survey a group of about 5 warthogs surrounded us, grazing peacefully at our feet as we were putting up a mist net.
Insects, insects and more insects!
During the day the main task is processing the insects captured in the light trap during the previous night’s survey. There were always lots of insects including flies and lacewings, crickets, beetles, delicate moths, and sometimes a mantis. All the larger insects were pinned. Pinning these insects was often an incredibly delicate and fiddly operation, requiring patience and a steady hand. But the sense of achievement when one was pinned perfectly was well worth the effort. Once pinned the insects were then labelled and given a home in one of the many insect drawers and boxes.
During my second week I was lucky enough to be invited along with the carnivore research team on a hyena darting mission. A hyena was spotted earlier in the week with a gin trap on one of its front paws - an unfortunate result of poachers. So armed with a calling kit, bait in the form of a dead impala found in the park earlier that day and determination we set off into the park, following Amanda the vet. Upon reaching the spot where the injured hyena was last seen, we set the bait and settled down for what could be a long wait. Amanda stayed in the vehicle close to the bait, while the rest of us in the second vehicle parked a few hundred metres away. From the calling kit various hyena calls and the sounds of dying animals were played. It was incredible to hear the hyenas replying, their whoops resonating through the park. But it got better, after a short while eyeshine was spotted and several hyenas appeared out of the darkness, jogging past us towards the bait. On the way back we saw many other animals including civits, buffalo and nightjars. Unfortunately the injured hyena wasn’t found, but another darting attempt will be made soon.
My third week was spent in the local village conducting bat surveys. Siobhan, a volunteer with an organisation called HELP Malawi, kindly invited us to stay at her house for the week. So, car full to bursting with kit, we headed off across the river to the village. For every survey that week we had an audience; crowds of excited children gathered around us while we were setting up and followed us as we moved from one net to another. They were curious about what we were doing and we took the opportunity to teach them about bats.
Before beginning the surveys in the village we had created our ‘bat bucket lists’ – a list of bats that we would love to see. The Mauritian tomb bat was on everyone’s list, however the chances of actually catching one were slim. But, what was the first bat we caught during the first village survey…a Mauritian tomb bat! We couldn’t believe our luck. It was a striking animal with a pure white belly and tricoloured fur on its back.
As the saying goes ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ and sadly, all too quickly it was time to say goodbye and head back home to Northern Ireland. My 4 weeks volunteering with African Bat Conservation were incredible. It’s been an experience that I’ll never forget.