Community bat monitoring agents help their communities reduce the risks of viruses from bats spilling over into humans in Bundibugyo, Uganda
As Alex Sekalombi, 38, walks in the hilly landscape of the remote villages of Ntandi in Bundibugyo district, Uganda, he is greeted with smiles as he passes through rows of small homesteads. He is a familiar face in these villages, which have previously suffered Ebola outbreaks.
He has walked for hours through bushes, footpaths, and cacao plantations to reach different bat roosts in his community.
Alex is one of the 15 community-based bat monitoring agents that were trained by STOP Spillover to monitor key human-bat interactions within their communities. STOP Spillover is a USAID- funded project implemented by a consortium of organizations led by Tufts University. In his role as a monitoring agent, Alex conducts bi-monthly observations of bats at seven different roosts including trees, a mosque, a health center, and a school using an Open Data Kit (ODK) tool [gadget] on an Android mobile device. This is an open-source software for collecting and managing data. Data is collected from different roost types which include caves, trees, households, churches, and schools. In addition, Alex also talks with his community to learn about the uses of bats, including hunting, and bat consumption practices.
“I use the gadget provided by the STOP Spillover team to conduct direct observations of bat roosts, and population counts of bats. In the gadget, I put in the type of bat roost, local names of bats, bat size, number, color, and behaviors observed such as sleeping, resting, or flying,” he says.
Alex further explains, as he supports a fellow agent with the tool.
“I often carry out bat counting in the evening when bats are leaving roosts to feed, or in the mornings when they are returning.”
For Alex, this is a typical day working as a community bat monitoring agent for STOP Spillover. As a former game ranger with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Alex says his role as a community bat monitoring agent gave him another chance to interact with the community on issues relating to zoonotic diseases, something he is passionate about. He also mentioned that his basic monthly allowance as a bat monitoring agent enhanced his income since he had just moved out of active service.
Since 2022, the STOP Spillover Uganda country team has been implementing a participatory community bat-human interaction monitoring program in three sub-counties of Bundibugyo - Burondo, Harugale, and Ntandi town council. The program aimed to identify locations where humans are exposed to bats and associated potential risk factors for viruses from bats. This effort focused on identifying the potential sources of risk to inform the design of risk reduction interventions.
To learn more about the community bat monitoring program, read the report here.
Image above: Alex Sekalombi, community bat monitor. Below left: Alex and another community monitor collect data. Below right: Alex investigates a bat roost. Photo credits: STOP Spillover Uganda.