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Exploring Thailand, Part 1: Beauty Among Banana Leaves

A painted bat (Kerivoula picta) roosting in the drooping tip of a banana leaf. This is Brynn’s first and favorite painted bat photo. Despite the bat’s bright colors it is well camouflaged in its similarly-colored roost.

Sweat rolled down my back as I peered under another banana leaf, searching for the rare and elusive painted bat (Kerivoula picta). Finding nothing, I continued determinedly to the next. We’d failed to find a single bat in nearly an hour of perseverance. Blazing sun aside, our Thai farmers and their sons remained confident.

It was our first day of searching for some of our planet’s most amazing animals. In the days ahead, we would see giant flying foxes, with close to four-foot wingspans, and tiny bumblebee bats, aptly named for being nearly as small as bumblebees. But none could surpass the painted bats we were hoping to see firsthand.

Finally, one of the young men excitedly called to report a find. The sharp eyes and experience of the farmers was unbeatable. Surprisingly, while these bats are brilliantly colored, they are also well camouflaged and difficult for untrained eyes to spot. It took some practice, but our success soon improved as we learned to recognize the kinds of broken leaf tips they prefer as day roosts.

P'Thanom, one of our farmer hosts, points out a sleeping pair of painted bats. These bats, unlike most other species, are very tolerant of human observers.
Painted bat roosting in a dead tip of a banana leaf.

It was this rare opportunity, along with a myriad of other extraordinary experiences the trip boasted, that had lured me away from the frigid Canadian winter (not a difficult task, mind you) and brought me across the Pacific Ocean to a place I’d never imagined seeing for myself. A few days ago, I had been shivering at a skating rink. Today, I was sweat soaked in +35°C (+95° F) heat, wandering through agricultural fields, looking for some of the world’s most beautiful mammals.

I’d known of painted bats only through Merlin’s photos. Captivating and striking with their orange and black coloring, they’ve earned the nickname ‘painted bats’ for good reason. Before our adventure, I had no understanding of the challenges they’ve faced or the efforts that have gone into protecting them. That knowledge, once obtained, was inspiring and eye-opening: a small glimpse into conservation efforts that have persisted for generations.

Bright colors of painted bats blend well with dead leaf tips where they roost.

As explained by our Thai guides, P’Kwang and Pongsanant, the story of farmers helping painted bats began decades ago, when two brothers who owned rice-growing farms discovered they could attract painted bats by providing roosting habitat between their rice paddies. Today, P’Kwang and Pongsanant are helping by hiring members of the “guardian” families to provide bat watching guide services for foreign tourists. The location of these painted bat farms is a well-kept secret in Thailand, lest the bats be found by commercial hunters who kill them for sale, mummified in glass cases.

To begin with, family members plant bananas along their rice dikes. When the plants are grown, they break the midribs of leaves about 30 centimeters (12 inches) from their tips, making the ends droop, forming a small “tent.” This turns them a mixture of colors, often orange, combined with dark, vertical shadows. These wilted leaves become preferred roosting sites. The bats’ bright orange fur and black wing markings can make them nearly invisible when folded into a drooping, discolored leaf. Thus, the farmers are essentially providing inexpensive bat houses that have attracted growing numbers of these bats, and the family’s knowledge of where to find them is being passed down from generation to generation. Entire families get involved and everyone plays a part. Some searched for bats while others deftly maneuvered the two-wheel tractors and trailers that served as our transport. Not to mention there was no shortage of mouthwatering food prepared by the women who stayed behind, serving us picnic lunches as we took mid-day breaks from what seemed like a grand Easter egg hunt.  

We found our first painted bat just before lunch on our first day. Sure enough, it was nestled at the end of a dying banana leaf tip, just as we’d been told to expect. We proceeded quietly in groups of three or four, taking care to make our final approach to the roost one at a time, guided by Daniel Hargreaves who pointed up at the bat. It roosted upside down, as bats mostly do, with only a fraction of its body visible. I quickly snapped the best photo I could – a shot of it half peeking out from the leaf, its pointed ears prominent, and a cute snout tucked behind one forearm. The black of one wing was barely visible before the rest of its body disappeared. A gusting breeze jostled the leaf back and forth, but the bat held fast. I admired it for as long as I could before stepping back and letting the next member of our group approach. I wouldn’t know until later that the photo I had captured would be one of my favorites from the entire trip (see first photo in this blog).

Over the next 24 hours, we would find nine more painted bats, including two mated pairs. The pairs were returned to the village to be photographed in Merlin’s 10-foot-square, portable photo studio. I’d read Merlin’s book, The Secret Lives of Bats, so I knew of the studio. But it was a whole other spectacle to see it in action. We had brought hundreds of mealworms, and each bat was hand fed and watered between shots. The bats were unbelievably gentle and irresistibly cute as they readily learned to expect apparently delicious snacks.

Tractors park while the group spreads out to look for painted bats.
A painted bat roosting in the wilted tip of a banana leaf.
Merlin Tuttle with Daniel Hargreaves photographing a painted bat in the mobile studio.

This complete respect for the bats, along with the meticulous setup and the way Merlin and the team would spend hours working for a perfect replication of what we’d earlier seen in the wild – these were things that had to be seen to be believed, and I would walk away with an even greater appreciation of Merlin’s extensive photo library.

Forgoing the chance for a shower and a few hours of A/C, I stayed in the village for the afternoon of our second and final day with the painted bats. The group had just finished planting banana plants at a site nearby, a task we took to with varying levels of alacrity but with full appreciation of its value. The site was protected from prying eyes and bushfires, nestled near the village and with a reliable supply of water. Armed with grubbing hoes, we’d planted about a dozen new banana plants, literally sowing the seeds of future painted bat conservation: one thread in a tapestry of efforts that illustrated the value of partnerships that also help people. Afterward, while some folks were understandably ready for a reprieve from the heat, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help with the studio, prepping the bats for their limelight and setting up flash stands.

Having handled bats before, another member of our group (Gwen Brewer) and I were tasked with taking measurements, feeding, and hydrating the captive pair within the studio. It was a delicate balance – holding them with a gentle grip that had just enough pressure to keep them in hand. Daniel coached us through it if we ever seemed unsteady, always ensuring the wellness of the bats came first. We’d even brought their original roost leaf with us to make them feel at home. We released them into the studio for a few minutes, watching them flutter around as they got their bearings. Afterward, I spent the remaining time setting up flash stands and taking amateur photos of the banana bat (Myotis muricola) we’d also brought along for the ride. It was tucked within the funnel created by a newly opening banana leaf. Meanwhile, P’Kwang and Kop (two of our drivers), and the villagers prepared a farewell feast for the entire group.

Evening rolled around languidly, bringing with it a less intense heat if no real sense of cooling off. The rest of our group plus the MTBC crew joined us in the gathering place we’d been using beneath the farm family’s home. This was where the studio had been set up, as well as where we were served enough food to feed an army. Four tables were barely enough to accommodate all the bodies and bowls.

At one point shortly before dinner, I caught sight of Daniel showing the studio to a young boy. The banana bat was the only bat accessible, but the full height of the leaf it was nestled in ended a foot above the boy’s head. Daniel gently scooped him up and lifted him over the leaf, showing him the tiny bat resting at the very bottom. Returned to the ground, the boy spoke excitedly in Thai, grinning from ear to ear. Daniel beamed back at him, and I wondered if I was watching a bat enthusiast being born.

After dinner was over and the tables cleared, we had the opportunity to purchase locally produced silk from the villagers. Pongsanant later told us that the amount of silk they’d offered for sale was probably the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of work. It was hard to fathom the amount of labor that had gone into what was presented to us, not only in the form of silk but also in the families’ effort of hosting 20-odd people for two days: feeding us, transporting us, welcoming us into their homes. All too soon we were saying goodbye, and our night ended with a heart-warming farewell complete with gifts and the promise of continued partnership and support. Well, the night ended for me that way. Merlin, Daniel, and the MTBC team stayed behind, working in the studio until around midnight before releasing the painted bats in the same area where they’d originally been caught. It was only the third day of the trip but already I was blown away by the work they all did: their tireless efforts, their patient generosity.

Our hosts setting up a picnic lunch in the fields. (L-R) P’Waen, P’Som, Pongsanant Trirat.

Being invited into the village, participating in the searches – these were privileges not to be taken for granted. Painted bats are often sought after and killed to sell as exotic souvenirs. As a result, P’Kwang, Pongsanant, and the villagers keep the location of these bats a closely guarded secret. We were asked not to share the location in any of our photos or social media posts, a minor request that plays a major role in one of the most careful and understated conservation initiatives I’ve been privy to. MTBC and Daniel are proud to have helped P’Kwang and Pongsanant cultivate a close-knit relationship with the farmers, one built on trust, confidence, and mutual respect, almost entirely devoid of publicity.

Painted bats are incredibly beautiful – I count myself lucky to have been able to see them for myself. The most valuable thing we can do, which MTBC has been doing for years, is to support communities in safeguarding bats that have been neglected for far too long. Hopefully, with our help, they can continue to do so for generations to come.

A pair of painted bats photographed in the studio.

Bio: Brynn’s interest in bats began at a young age when a small group of them made her grandparents’ house their summer home. This interest was taken to a higher level when she incorporated hoary bats into her graduate research at UPenn. Today, Brynn champions bats in her personal life while finding opportunities to work with them professionally, including mist-netting in Montana and acoustic surveying in Nova Scotia, Canada. She has a love of mountain sports and if she’s not skiing, biking, or climbing, she’s probably holed up somewhere reading a good book.

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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.