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Macconnell’s Bats (Mesophylla macconnelli)
Photo: Derek Hargis

The Bat Island of the Caribbean

A local conservation organization makes huge gains for bats in Trinidad
by Annika S. Hipple
WHEN IT COMES TO BATS, Trinidad far outranks any other Caribbean island, with 70 known species. The newest species, a type of Gardnerycteris, or hairy-nosed bat (known as Mimon in Trinidad), was discovered in early 2022 and is still being studied.

“It’s one of those extravagantly decorated bats with echolocation,” Trinidadian naturalist Geoffrey Gomes says. “It has the big ears, big noseleaf. It is quite stunning in its sort of bizarre look.”

The only endemic mammal known to exist on Trinidad and Tobago is Sir David Attenborough’s myotis (Myotis attenboroughi), which has only been found on Tobago, and was identified fairly recently.

The reason for Trinidad’s spectacular biodiversity is the country’s proximity to Venezuela, which makes it more similar to tropical South America than other Caribbean islands. Yet until the creation of an organization called Trinibats, bat conservation measures were few and far between.

“There are not many places you can go in the world and see the diversity that you see there in such a small area,” says Daniel Hargreaves, a British bat conservationist who co-founded Trinibats with Gomes.

The two met when Hargreaves spent a week in Trinidad on an expedition that Gomes arranged and co-led for Bat Conservation International (BCI) in 2010. Gomes had been advocating for the protection of Trinidad’s bats for years but had difficulty gaining support and funding.

“Geoffrey was a lonely voice out there for a long time,” says Hargreaves, who came up with the idea of bringing groups of British and North American bat enthusiasts to Trinidad and Tobago on vacations that would include assisting with bat research and conservation projects. The cost of the trips would help fund Trinibats’ work.

A major obstacle to bat conservation in Trinidad and Tobago was a 1958 law that included all bats on a national list of vermin that could be killed indiscriminately. “It didn’t really matter in the consciousness of people in Trinidad. A bat is a bat is a bat is a bat,” says Gomes.

Through education and advocacy efforts, Trinibats, in partnership with the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge, the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, successfully lobbied for a legislative change that resulted in all bats except vampire bats being removed from the vermin list—a huge step in ensuring their protection.

Changing the public’s perception of bats is an ongoing process. Social media, especially the Trinibats Facebook page, has played a significant role, as has the 2015 book Bats of Trinidad and Tobago, which Gomes co-authored. More than just a field guide, it’s also a natural history of bats and a study of human-bat interactions in Trinidad.
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The island of Trinidad is home to 70 known bat species.
Trinibats Team lined up for photo
The Trinibats Team—L-R: Luke Rostant, Geoffrey Gomes, Janine Seetahal, Darshan Narang, and Daniel Hargreaves.
Photo: Daniel Hargreaves
One issue is that bats often find their way into people’s houses and other buildings. After the delisting of bats as vermin, individuals and even pest control companies began contacting Trinibats for advice on evicting bats humanely.

”Trinibats highlights the importance of these misunderstood creatures in terms of pollination, fruit dispersal, pest control, and as subjects of scientific research, and in so doing changes people’s opinions of these incredible animals,” says Dr. Luke Rostant, who is a Natural Sciences Lecturer at The University of the West Indies and a member of Trinibats. “The work of Trinibats in educating kids, especially on bat diversity and the ecosystem services they provide, cannot be understated, and I’m certain this will pay dividends in the future with respect to their continued conservation.”

Trinibats strives to educate people about the essential role of bats in native ecosystems, including reestablishing cleared forests.

“It’s very easy in Trinidad and Tobago to show the value of bats because many of the large trees, many plants, are either pollinated or have their seeds spread by bats,” Hargreaves explains. “Getting that message out and getting people to appreciate what these bats are doing is really important.”

Gomes’s book has received widespread attention, and gradually, the message is getting through. For example, at Trinidad’s annual Carnival, people often dress up as bats, but traditionally costumes have depicted bats as ugly. After the book was published, two different costume designers contacted Gomes to show how it had influenced them.

“They’re now portraying the bats in a really pretty way,” he says.

A big part of changing attitudes toward bats is simply reducing the fear many people feel when encountering these nocturnal creatures. Thanks to Trinibats, Trinidadians are discovering the magic of bats and a sense of pride in the species diversity found in their small island nation.