Last Monday I went on a vampire bat (desmodus rotundus) capturing adventure at the farm of Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapato, one of the Reforestation Project participants.

Spending the evening at a rural farm and returning home at 3 am is not your average days work in Nicaragua, even for a tropical sustainable agriculture technician.  But for a micro credit company who lends to farmers who depend on their cattle not just to pay back their loans but also feed their family and hopefully invest in some farm improvements, helping to control a large population of vampire bats can significantly improve a family’s financial outlook.

Dried blood on the necks of the cattle at Santiago's farm are tell tale signs of vampire neighbors.

It’s tempting to think of these creatures as the origin of the popular vampire myth, but the truth is that the legend originated in Eastern europe long before the existence of this american species was discovered by botanists.  In spanish, drop the “bat” and just call them vampiros, to differentiate them from the non-blood-sucking (or technically non-blood-licking) mucealagos bats.   Vampiros have little black beady eyes,wrinkled pig noses, and two razor sharp incisor teeth that pierce the neck of cattle.  Nestled among the wrinkles in the bats noses are thermoreceptors which help them locate where large veins run close to the surface of the skin.  They use their teeth first as little razors to shave off the wiry hair and then to pierce the skin, where an application of saliva which has anticoagulant properties ensures that they can lap up enough blood to last them two or three days.  The bats tend to return to the same cattle to feed, which can stunt the growth of young calves especially during the dry summer months when cattle are often already malnourished from the lack of fresh green food.

The promoted method of controlling the bats is a capturing and poisoning routine that cuts the bats populations down but doesn’t exterminate them or negatively affect populations of fruit and other species of beneficial bats, which may be mistaken for vampire bats but actually curb insect populations and pollinate fruit trees.  In this particular zone of Nagarote, the vampire bat population is very high, but other bat populations are also present.  For Santiago Sanchez, CEPRODEL brought an independant bat catcher who has high quality nylon nets.  The first thing we did before the sun set was measure and mark out an area where we could surround a group of cattle with the nets.  Cattle manure and twigs that could dirty or tear the net were cleared away with brooms and machetes, and four tall posts were cut and set into the corral floor at the right distance.  The nets are two meters tall, and need to fall just along the ground without sagging too much.

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata, his wire Petrona Meranco, daughter Maria Orfilio, and grandaughter Natalya.

After we set up we relaxed.  Santiago Sanchez’s family are known within the Reforestation project for their home cooking.  It is rare to show up at their farm without being served something delicious from Petrona’s kitchen.  Smoked venizen, chicharron (fried pork rinds), fresh cuajada (farmers cheese) and plantains or yucca from their vegetable huerto (backyard garden, one of the most diverse I’ve seen in Nicaragua!).  Whereas many Nicaraguans spend Easter week heading to the beach where they drink too much beer and risk their lives in the strong pacific surf, this family slaughtered a pig and feasted for three days on nacatamales and chicharron.  They treated us to an excellent dinner and we had some coffee before heading back to the corral around 7:30 pm to wait for the vampires to arrive.

The first vampire catch of the evening

Like many exciting sounding adventures, this one actually involved quite a bit of waiting time.  Marlon, the bat catcher, hung a hammock off the back of the truck, and we all found a good spot to settle down, turn off our flashlights, and be silent.  Santiago’s four sons were with us, and I was a bit worried that the bats would sense our pick-up-truck-and-seven-person presence and decide that actually they could wait another night for a meal.  But we only waited about forty minutes bofore the first bat was caught in the net.

Vampire bats approach their victim low to the ground, often landing and then walking up to the animal.  Four vampire bats flew into our trap within an hour an half, all of them catching in the bottom two feet of the nets.  Unravelling their claws and wings from the delicate strings of the net was the most time consuming part of the evening.  Marlon, who used thick leather gloves, needed Vernon’s assistance using the tip of a pen to carefully pull each nylon strand off of the bat.  Although bats are the most frecuent rabies carrier to infect humans (and Luis had two rounds of rabies shots when he worked professionally as a bat catcher), the joke this night was that the bats were very clean.  Because Santiago treats his cattle with antiparasitic supplements, the bats recieved this benefit along with the blood and were assuredly parasite and tick free!

As we untangled the bats (by we I mean our team of one Professional Bat Catcher, one Bat Untangler Assistant, one Former Bat Catcher Advisor, five Curiouser Onlookers, and me serving as journalist and photo documenter for the evening), we secured them in a sack to apply the poisonous pomade at the end of the evening.  By 10:30 pm we had caught four vampires, one regular bat, and listened to the evening rendition of Pacho Madrigal, a radio drama that is extremely popular in the countryside.

A small stick is used to apply the pomade, which contains the powerful anticoagulant diphenadione.  There is a unmistakable irony in the fact that this is the best chemical to curb a beast which lives off the blood of animals and humans using the help of his own anticoagulant in his saliva.  Diaphenadione causes intense hemoragging when it enters the blood stream, and is a common rodentcide.  It is applied to the body of the vampires to take advantage of the habit that vampires have of licking the other vampires in their colonies to verify eachothers identities.  In this way, it’s possible to poison an average of 25 vampires by smearing the lotion on one.  And since vampires and beneficial bats do not share colony space, the poisoning targets only the community of vampires and doesn’t endanger the other species.

In this video you can see the pug faced shape of the bats face and even hear the piggy like squeal of the vampire over the truck motor.  I was surprised at how clear the difference was between vampires and beneficial bats.  The beneficial bats have a much more mousey nose with a flat horn like flap of skin in the center of its face that polinates as the bat visits different flowers in the forest.  The one mucealago also set himself apart by getting caught in the very top of the net.  We let him go without the greasing ritual.  Bats are fascinating creatures; it’s a shame that Desmodus rotundus has evolved to feed off of the principal source of income for small Nicaraguan farmers.

The Team: Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata and two of his sons, Luis Rivas, myself, Marlon the Professional Bat Catcher, Vernon Berrios our technical assistant (taking the picture), and some calves willing to be bat lures inside our net (far left).