Project Update: PolinizAmigos Promotes Conservation Through Ecological Education

Being outside tends to incite a general excitement and urge to run in young children. Thankfully, we were in a place where it could be allowed. The tropical deciduous forest of Alamos, Mexico is a bioregion of mostly spiny trees and cactus during the dry months. The weekly hikes with the PolinizAmigos project was the first time I had led groups of children into nature — and it went really well! We bird-watched, counted insects, took photos of plants, learned the trees’ names, and mapped with a phone app. My project, funded by an Alumni TIES grant, allowed for additional curriculum and programming for an environmental education club, focused on the importance of local pollinators for youth groups of 8–10 year olds. We incorporated digital mapping and observation of pollinators throughout a protected park, Parque la Colorada. Taking the youth into nature was a major focus of the project, in addition to environmental classes, workshops with scientists, pollinator gardens and murals at four schools. We invited biologists from Universities of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Arizona so that the youth could have contact with scientists who do research on plants, bats, insects, and butterflies, as a way to see their bioregion from a new perspective.

The hikes were positive experiences for the kids as well as the adults. This project would never have been possible if not for the people who work at Nature and Culture International, the NGO in Alamos. The local youth group leader, Luly Alcantar, was like a pied piper with children. They listened when she talked, they did what she said, and they stuck to her like magnets. She has that way of making activities more fun which is necessary when teaching science to kids. A natural born educator, she even spent her Saturdays and Sundays with children teaching choir for her church. She helped me lead every hike, youth group meeting, school garden, and without her magnetism it would have been a much different result. I learned how the success of a project depends on the team one builds to make it happen. I am so grateful for our teamwork.

One unforgettable experience with PolinizAmigos was when we had Bat Night, Noche de Morcielagos. Bats scare many people in rural Sonora, Mexico, because all are assumed to be blood-sucking vampire bats. Vampire bats do occasionally suck the blood of cows and pose a slight problem to ranchers but they don’t feed off people. Bat caves are often blown up by rancher associations through this fear, even when the bats are of a different species. The Mexican Lesser Long Nosed bat (Leptonycterus curasoae yerbabuena) is a pollinating bats that feeds on the flowers of saguaro and organ pipe cactus. This bat is endangered and without it many of the cactus species wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Our goal with this event was to change the perception of the fanged, night creature into one of a flying, fury mammal who contributes to the wellness of the ecosystem. By imagining how it travels from Southern to Northern Mexico, pollinating plants as it goes, we wanted to incite wonder, curiosity and possibly, love. We invited a bat biologist from the University of Sinaloa, Alfredo Leal, to help out. With Alfredo, we set up nets to catch bats to show the children. Alfredo does this for his research on the economic benefits that bats produce by eating bugs around farm land; as free pest killers, their economic impact is huge! First we showed a documentary on bats as the kids anxiously waited for the sun to go down. The net caught one bat that night, and we lined the kids up to each look closely at the bat’s tiny body, wings, fangs, and general cuteness. It was a fruit bat and so cute. The kids and their parents could see how the bat was more afraid of the many giant homo sapiens peering into its tiny face than they should be of it. When Alfredo gave the word, he opened his hand and let the bat recover. He slowly regained his energy after such a surprising night. The children waited silently in the dark watching for the bat to take flight into the night, until an audible gasp meant that it had returned to the sky.

Our goal was to share a fun and educational experience that changed their relationship to nature. When parents and grandparents warn about blood sucking bats and treat them as pests, children pick up on that. When parents are afraid of the natural environment, children learn that, too. By enjoying the night together and seeing a pollinating, flying mammal up close, we were able to spark some love and empathy for that tiny animal that flies thousands of miles, leaving pollinated flowers to grow fruit. We hope that this experience will allow the youth to share positive stories with their friends, family, and one day their children. The Alumni TIES grant positively impacted many youth in Alamos and surrounding towns with the intention of promoting conservation and love for nature.

For the project blog and other videos go to http://nicoledisante.wixsite.com/poliniza

You can view a video about Noche de Morcielagos below:

Written and contributed by Nicole DiSante.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.