Explaining the benefits of bats

Walk into any household in Nigeria and the chances are you will find a tin of shea butter. Extracted from the fruit of the wild growing karite tree — the so-called ‘tree of life’ — shea butter has many healing properties, as well as being widely used in cooking.

The quality of pure Nigerian shea butter is second to none. It is one of Nigeria’s most useful and valuable household products, and it is utterly dependent on bats, because bats are the main dispersers of karite tree seeds.

This is just one of the many benefits of bats that TBA Alumna and bat specialist, Iroro Tanshi, explains to people when she is doing research in urban and rural areas of her country. Most of them have no idea that bats do so much good. As well as seed dispersal, they pollinate many economically important plants and eat insect pests. 

Iroro became fascinated in bats on the TBA field course in Uganda in 2010. Inspired by one of our expert teachers — a bat specialist — she was hooked by these nocturnal mammals.

“The TBA factor in my conservation career is huge.  The TBA made me aware of conservation; why it matters and how to do field biology, which is so vital for conservation research.”

Back home in Nigeria, Iroro realised that bats are little understood and not much loved. They are hunted for food, feared as carriers of disease, and — in some communities — still considered to be witches.

Iroro decided to change the situation. With TBA follow-up support, she started by revising the national bat database which had not been updated for 25 years: through field and data research, she added 19 species to the list.

“I learnt that in conservation, you have to start from where you are. It is important to have the big picture in order to begin to make a conservation effort, but the first thing we need to know is what is out there on the ground. The TBA provides you with the field biology skills to do essential conservation research.”

Today, five years after her TBA experience in Uganda, Iroro is a leading figure in bat conservation in her country, where she is transforming knowledge about bats and the benefits that they bring. She is the Nigerian member of the IUCN Bat Specialist Group and a founding figure in the pan-African research network Bat Conservation Africa.

“Something else that was very striking, and a big part of my TBA experience, was the international networking.” says Iroro.  “They bring together people from many different countries and that is really important.  So, when I was invited to join in helping to launch Bat Conservation Africa I happily said ‘yes’ because I had understood the importance of making connections from the TBA.

“I would not have been able to progress in my work without these networks. They break down the isolation between scientists and researchers and conservationists in Africa. The TBA helps you to realise that you need connections to be a success, to make an impact, to make a difference.”

IMG_0562_Iroro with studentsIroro has launched and leads citizen science programmes to raise awareness and monitor bat colonies, and in her role at the Department of Animal and Environmental Biology at Nigeria’s University of Benin, she is supervising new graduates in bat research.

Iroro’s next step is to finalise the scope of her PhD which will investigate how bats use different landscapes in Nigeria. Her findings will improve understanding of how bat species interact with the environments (intact or disturbed) they occur in, and add to the growing body of evidence on Nigerian bats; a better foundation on which to build conservation policy.