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Advancing Bat Conservation in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park

Merlin Tuttle preparing to photograph drinking bats at waterhole, but first having to resolve a water rights dispute with a large male warthog.

Wading nearly knee-deep into a disgusting mixture of black mud and water, I nervously eyed an extra-large warthog who was reluctant to share his pond. Displaying nearly five-inch-long “tusks,” he glared at me from less than 20 feet away. Merlin had just chosen this isolated water hole for our night’s bat photography, despite having nearly plunged headfirst into the muddy quagmire himself when he stepped into a deep elephant track, made invisible by the muddy water. As I attempted to install photographic stands, the warthog stood his ground, apparently having other ideas!

The pond was one of several recommended by our host, Piotr Naskrecki, a leading biodiversity expert and wildlife photographer. He had invited Merlin as one of four international speakers for the park’s 2023 conference, titled “Conservation of Neglected Taxa.” Piotr is also an expert bat photographer who shares Merlin’s deep concern that loss of bats can severely threaten whole ecosystems and economies.

After staring down the warthog, I and two member volunteers, Mindy Vescovo and Madelline Mathis, spent more than four hours helping Merlin set up an infrared triggering beam, five high-speed flashes, and two cameras. Then we temporarily arranged branches from fallen trees to help guide drinking bats to our chosen location.

Merlin Tuttle and David Shuler photographing bats drinking at a waterhole in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

Lights out–we anxiously waited for flashes to fire, indicating bat strikes and possible photos. However, in the overcast darkness it was also easy to imagine hearing much larger animals, some of which we preferred not to meet! Fortunately, the elephants avoided us, and a lioness and her cubs left us alone. Our primary goal was to document the beauty and importance of the continent’s incredible, but often neglected bats. On that first evening we were disappointed to get just one useful bat photo.

However, on subsequent evenings we did get some spectacular shots of bats drinking. One even showed a mother Sundevall’s leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) carrying her newborn pup while drinking in flight. This was a big surprise, as such a feat had not previously been documented.

Elephants at the first of our several netting sites in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.
A lioness and her two cubs rest in the shade to escape the 110 degree heat.
Cesaria Huo, a master's degree student working under Piotr's direction, helping Merlin and Madelline remove a light-winged lesser house bat (Scotoecus albofuscus) from a mist net in Mozambique. This was only the second specimen known from Mozambique.
Cesaria showing the bat's transparent wings, from which its name is derived.
A Sunduvall's leaf-nosed bat carrying her young pup while drinking in flight in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. This is the first time in Merlin's career that he's seen a bat attempting to drink on the wing, while carrying a pup.

Sometimes it took thousands of photos to obtain a truly great one. However, we did occasionally get very lucky. When Piotr showed us a small colony of slit-faced bats (Nycteris), believed to represent a new species, Merlin was intrigued. The odds of obtaining a close-up photo of one seemed remote, but we had to try. That afternoon, we spent more than four hours setting up. The colony of only about 30 bats was roosting more than 20 feet up in a hollow tree that provided exits both above and below the roosting bats. When darkness finally lured the bats to emerge, we got just a single photo, but it provided a near perfect shot of an as yet to be described new species.

With more than 100 bat species already known from Gorongosa, and new ones still being discovered and described, we were thrilled to see obvious progress toward a sustainable future for this once nearly destroyed ”Garden of Eden.” The Gorongosa National Park historically harbored one of the world’s greatest, most diverse wildlife assemblages.

A slit-faced bat (Nycteris sp?) emerging from a hollow tree roost.

Located at the southern end of Africa’s great Rift Valley in the heart of Mozambique, it includes some of our planet’s most biodiverse habitats. Yet it was nearly destroyed by the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992. Now, thanks in large part to the personal efforts of one man, philanthropist Greg Carr, the park’s Biodiversity Science Education Program {part of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory) is flourishing. It now mentors Mozambican students, biologists, and leaders in conservation research through hands-on capacity-building workshops, research fellowships, and higher education opportunities, demonstrating that progress is still possible when both wildlife and human needs are addressed through cooperative efforts. For me, participation in this model effort was a rare privilege.

Conference organizers Piotr Naskrecki, right, and Tara Massad, left, and international speakers David Wagner, Merlin Tuttle, Perpetra Akite, Matilda Brown at the Conservation of Neglected Taxa Conference.

The opportunity to meet Greg Carr, the visionary philanthropist promotor and President of the Gorongosa National Park, was a trip highlight. He personally welcomed us to the conference and took a special interest in bats. His efforts in protecting and restoring the park’s biodiversity include assistance to local communities that demonstrate the benefits of living in harmony with nature.

The week-long conference in which we participated, included presentations by four international leaders in promoting normally neglected, but important plant and animal species. Dr. David Wagner, an entomologist and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, provided an introductory overview titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Insect Decline in the Anthropocene”. Dr. Matilda Brown, Conservation Science Analyst at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, spoke about often neglected plants in her talk, “Conserving Botanical Biodiversity.” Dr. Perpetra Akite, professor of zoology at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, spoke about “Insect Conservation in Africa”. Each speaker provided rich experiences and data, cautionary evidence and recommendations, followed by discussion sessions with young African professionals.

Merlin Tuttle speaking at the Conservation of Neglected Taxa Conference.
International speakers and attendees, including Piotr Naskrecki, Tara Massad, David Wagner, Merlin Tuttle, Perpetra Akite, and Matilda Brown, at the Conservation of Neglected Taxa Conference.
Merlin discussing conservation options with students and young professionals during a breakout session of the conservation biology conference “Conservation of Neglected Taxa."
Madelline Mathis, Mindy Vescovo, David Shuler, and Raul Chomela preparing to photograph bats emerging from a hollow tree.

As the final speaker, Dr. Tuttle shared photos illustrating African bat diversity, values, and needs in his first presentation “Africa’s Bats – Neglected but Vital.” In his second, “Africa’s Bats – Dispelling Fear & Demonstrating Values,“ he provided examples of his inspiring conservation successes, including protecting key caves, a national park, and countless abandoned mines for millions of bats. He also led discussions on how to put fear in perspective and helped guide development of solutions for educating others about the values of bats.

I was privileged to work with such an incredible team in such a rich haven of nature. Many thanks to our loyal members, especially Mindy and Madelline, who helped make this possible!

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Michael Lazari Karapetian

Michael Lazari Karapetian has over twenty years of investment management experience. He has a degree in business management, is a certified NBA agent, and gained early experience as a money manager for the Bank of America where he established model portfolios for high-net-worth clients. In 2003 he founded Lazari Capital Management, Inc. and Lazari Asset Management, Inc.  He is President and CIO of both and manages over a half a billion in assets. In his personal time he champions philanthropic causes. He serves on the board of Moravian College and has a strong affinity for wildlife, both funding and volunteering on behalf of endangered species.