It’s early morning in Paris. The sun has just risen over the white rounded roof of the Sacré Coeur cathedral on Montmartre hill, and its light now streams through the window of my small rooftop apartment. The scent of freshly baked baguettes from the bakery down the street blends with the aroma of brewing coffee and the distant chatter of passers-by. I lean out of the window, allowing myself to immerse in the colours, scents, and sounds of this idyllic morning. In a moment, I shake my head and refocus. Preparing for an expedition in one of the world’s most remote jungles seems surreal amidst the ancient charm of this city. However, the huge pile of equipment, medicines, and survival gear lying on the floor reminds me that it’s real—I will soon be leading a challenging expedition in the untouched jungles of Guyana. Our team consists of exceptional bat researchers, skilled Amerindian guides, and an entire film crew, all prepared to help me find and study one of the world’s most enigmatic and rare bat species—the spectral bat. I’m unsure how I managed to convince them to join me on this audacious quest, but in this tranquil Parisian morning, I feel overwhelmed with an immense sense of gratitude for everything life has given me.
My eyes sweep across the pile of luggage and come to rest on a pair of worn, weathered hiking boots. One might say they appear as if they were trampled by wild elephants, peed on by monkeys, chewed by tapirs or pooped by harpy eagles. Frankly, that is exactly what has actually happened to them. I have been wearing these boots through jungles and savannahs, deserts and mountains, pristine sandy beaches and the depths of dark caves for over nine years. Some may argue that discarding them is not only a practical move but also a matter of social courtesy. Yet, I refuse to part with them. There is a reason why I still wear these old shoes.
It was the summer of 2014 when I found myself back in my home country of Bulgaria, feeling lost and uncertain. I believe that most young people who graduate with degrees in ecology or nature conservation can relate to the sense of helplessness and job insecurity conflicting with their dreams and passion for making a difference. Two years had passed since I completed my master’s studies but I was still searching for a Ph.D. program that would allow me to study the sensory world of bats—the greatest love of my life. That’s when I crossed paths with Merlin and Paula.
They came to Bulgaria to photograph hunting bats at the Siemers Bat Research Station, nestled in the picturesque village of Tabachka. I had been volunteering at the field station for five years and knew the place and its bats better than my own hometown and neighbors. Merlin asked me to join the project and assist them in capturing the enigmatic world of European bats through his lens. We spent two incredible months photographing fluffy horseshoes, elegant long-eared plecotus bats, the big and sturdy looking serotines, and the clever but mischievous mouse-eared bats.
Working with Merlin Tuttle was a life-changing experience! His boundless energy, infectious passion, and unwavering patience were extraordinary. However, above all, it was his attitude and compassion that left the deepest impact. His motto, “win friends, not battles,” made me realize the significance of understanding different perspectives when navigating human-wildlife conflicts. Many times later in my life, when I encountered particularly difficult situations, I would reflect on the lessons he taught me during those two months.
Observing my professional struggles, Merlin decided to help me pursue my dream. He encouraged me to persevere and instilled in me the confidence that I could handle far greater projects than I had ever imagined. Thanks to his support, I applied for a research manager position at African Bat Conservation in Malawi. Although I was eventually offered the position, I couldn’t afford the journey to this remote part of the planet and had to decline. When Merlin learned of my predicament, he reached out to his old friend and supporter, Jeff Acopian, and convinced him to support my career by funding my trip to Africa. It was this remarkable display of generosity that marked the inception of the Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation grants, which have since supported the aspirations of so many young people dedicated to the study and conservation of bats.
For me personally, this grant opened the doors to many further adventures. Back in 2014, I could never have believed that I would work in places like Malawi, Denmark or Cuba, complete my Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute, have my scientific discoveries filmed by BBC and National Geographic, or lead a research expedition to one of the most remote jungles on the planet. I cannot help but wonder if any of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation.
But Merlin’s and Paula’s support didn’t stop there. Shortly before my departure for Africa, they wrote to inform me that they had decided to gift me a new pair of hiking boots. They had noticed that my old ones were worn-out and riddled with holes. This simple gesture of love and care meant more to me than any grant or prize could ever convey.
That is the reason why I haven’t thrown away the boots they bought for me 9 years ago. And now, on this beautiful Parisian morning, the first thing I am going to pack for the upcoming expedition is that worn-out, sad-looking pair of shoes. They serve as a symbol, reminding me that no obstacle is insurmountable when there are people like Merlin and Paula who wholeheartedly believe in me. These boots have been with me through countless adventures, carrying me through mud and snow, ups and downs, despair and triumph. They bear the marks of my determination and the memories of the support I have received along the way. They are a constant reminder that with their belief in me, I can conquer any challenge that lies ahead.