Wartburg College students have received Clinton Global Initiative University funds to literally “go to bat” against malaria in Africa.The students — an Iowan and two Africans — were awarded a provisional $5,000 Clinton Foundation Resolution Grant at the CGIU conference at Arizona State University, March 21-23, to combat malaria using a bat species capable of devouring 1,000 of the disease-carrying insects per hour.
Tyler Vogel, a freshman from Oelwein; Isaac Chikuse, a sophomore from Malawi; and Ana Julante, a freshman from Angola, will build bat houses in Lilongwe, Malawi, in southeast Africa. Chikuse and Julante have been afflicted with malaria as part of their “Wings of the Night” project, which also involves recycling bat droppings as fertilizer.
During the final round of competition to fund 20 social venture projects at the conference founded by former President Bill Clinton, the Wartburg team found itself in heady company.
“It was an amazing experience just to think that Wartburg was represented,” Vogel said. “The groups next to us were from Harvard and Stanford and around the corner was Oxford.”
Instead of relying on mosquito nets, the students went on the offensive.
“Ana was telling us that she slept in mosquito nets,” Vogel said. “In the Angola sun, it can get up to 100 degrees, sometimes even until night. You may not want to sleep in a mosquito net when it’s creating a sauna effect. So people have to make a choice: Am I going to protect myself or be comfortable?”
The students will establish colonies of small bats that are insectivores — not their larger fruit-eating or bloodsucking relatives of cultural ill-repute.
“Just like you attract birds to a specific location, we will attract bats,” Julante said. “But we need the right conditions.”
Those factors, Vogel said, include being near water and facing east for more warmth.“There’s science behind it, but there’s also a degree of luck,” he added. “We want to limit that luck as much as possible. Once they find a place to roost, they’ll stay there indefinitely. Some bats live as long as 20 years.”
The students plan to work with Africa Bat Conservation, a British-based organization from the University of Bristol that is working to preserve the winged-mammals in Malawi.Chikuse also must convince the project’s beneficiaries in his home country that the bats will be benign. In fact, 70 percent of bats feast on insects.
“A main chunk of this is educating the villages that bats are good,” Vogel said. “It’s important when we’re building our house that we only get the correct bats — the insectivorous ones, not the fruit-eating ones.”
“If we build the bat house in a specific way — maybe a bigger one in a higher position —people won’t have direct contact,” Julante said. “Even if they can see the outside of the bat house, they cannot see what’s inside. Plus, bats are nocturnal animals. When they eventually come out, people won’t be around.”
In addition, a bat byproduct may contribute to economic development.“
There’s a large market for guano (bat droppings),” Vogel said. “It is one of the best fertilizers you can get naturally. There’s a way to install the bat house where you open a slot and the guano falls out. You can sell that or use it for agricultural purposes in the village, which would create disposable income.”
Vogel said the provisional grant provides for “$2,500 outfront and $2,500 later,” after papers are completed for the project, which is estimated at $10,000 overall and will include a fundraising effort.“The resolution grant is sort of a seed foundation to build upon,” he said. “They provide us with a mentor, resources and connections, which is a big deal and may help us get more money. It makes us an organization to be taken seriously.” Wartburg’s social entrepreneur program helped the students prepare for the competition. They also got an assist from biology professors Michael Bechtel and Jennifer Maxwell in executing the plan.