8/06/2016. Interview by Marta Daniela Santos.
Rodrigo Medellín visited cE3c last May, to talk about how to do conservation science, implement it and not die trying. And he is certainly one of the best people to talk about it: together with his team he has been working in the conservation of several endangered species such as bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, jaguars, black bears – and bats. Rodrigo Medellín is popularly known as The Bat Man of Mexico, because of his work with the lesser long-nosed bat, also known as the tequila bat.
Rodrigo Medellín is passionate about his work. In fact he says he has what he can “only describe as a mental deformity”, because he has been passionate about animals since his early childhood: studying animals and being surrounded by them was all he thought about. And that included bringing bats and snakes and foxes (among other animals) to his family home, when he was a child.
Let’s start... with the beginning. How did you become fascinated with bats? And how did it evolve from there?
All my life I have always thought of animals. My first word was not ‘mamma’ or ‘dadda’; it was ‘flamingo’. And then I just kept going. Every Christmas would be to go to the field to see animals, go to the zoo, get a new book on animals, etc. I spent my entire allowance, when I was around 8 and then on, on animal books. Then when I was 11 there was this TV show, “The 64 000 peso contest”, in which you choose a topic about which people ask you questions; if you answer correctly you get twice as many pesos. I told my mum I wanted to appear there, I wanted them to ask me questions about mammals. She thought I was crazy, but eventually she took me to the producer. He said “Listen, this is a show in which people with real knowledge in their heads are going to showcase that knowledge. That is what we award. This is not a show for a kid to just throw a ball at something and get a prize”. But then they pulled the book and they srarted asking questions about mammals. I was responding and responding and pretty soon they said “Congratulations, you’re the first kid in the show”.
Wow. You were really certain that you wanted to be there.
Absolutely certain. I have to tell you that at that point in time there was nobody in Mexico who knew more about African mammals than me. I had read everything available in Spanish. And of course Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, who was a spanish naturalist, was a big influence. So I was appearing every Saturday on prime-time TV, and then I get a call from the head of the Mammal Laboratory in the University of Mexico. He said “I saw you on TV and I know you have an interest in mammals. Why don’t you come over and we will show you around? We will take you to the field, we will teach you about mammals and you will be our assistant.” Of course it was a dream come true for someone like me! [says enthusiastically]
So I started going to the field when I was 12 – and that was when the first bat came into my hands. That really shifted the way I looked at everything. The questions just accumulated in my brain, one after the other. I remember this distinctive individual, that bat I had in my hands at that time: I know the species, I know everything. “Why do you have those big hears? Why are you that size?” All those kinds of things were just accumulating in my brain. So I thought: there are so many questions about these things that this what I’m doing. This is what I’m doing. So I just kept going, and I never looked back. And I started bringing bats and snakes and skunks and foxes and raccoons and all kinds of things to my family home.
I imagine your parents were a bit surprised.
They were incredibly understanding. I’m the youngest of five. I would bring all kinds of animals to the house, and they would let me have them. I had bats living in the bathroom that I shared with my brother. Up to this day I thank them every day. My mum died about 3 years ago and my dad is 102. I’m actually seeing him on Friday this week. Every time I go to a big trip he insists in me coming, telling him about it and showing him pictures. So I always had the support of my family. They always thought I was a little crazy, which I think I am. But there’s nothing wrong with it.
It’s in a positive way.
Well, not only that. I consider the world to be owned and led by people who are crazy. Most of the time, unfortunately, people are crazy in the wrong way. But if you lead your crazyness to do good things, you end up doing things that no one else would. That’s why I always insist in thinking outside the box. And this is exactly the reason why I consider myself to be an intellectual vampire. I thrive in the presence of young minds. I’m never happiest than when I see the look in the face of a young student when they have their first bat in their hands. It changes the whole concept of what they’re doing. They get committed right there. You see that shift, and that is what energizes me so much.
Which characteristics of bats fascinate you the most?
Well, since I knew so much about African mammals, I knew that there were so many different species of antelope co-existing in the grasslands of Africa. I knew that the antelope would split the niche and each one would be specialized in using a certain part of the vegetations; they coexist by doing different things in the ecosystem.
And then I find that bats do that in a much bigger way. You can have 40 ou 50 species of bats living in the same place with each of them doing a different thing. Each one of them is feeding on a different thing, or it’s taking its food in a different way than the others. That organization of the communities of bats really marked my way of viewing them. It blew my mind that there were so many species so different from each other. There are bats with huge ears, small ears, rounded ears, pointed ears, big eyes, little eyes, short snouts...all kinds of bats. And each configuration tells you a lot about what they do in the environment.
You’re known as the Bat Man of Mexico, because of your conservation work with the lesser long-nosed bat – also known as the tequila bat, right, because of its connection with agave?
Yes. You know who gave that name to the bat? [silence] David Attemborough.
In the process of producing the documentary [The Bat Man of Mexico, by BBC2, released in 2014], I met David. Can you imagine? I sat down with him 3 times. The last time was when he agreed to narrate the documentary. He sat down asking me questions about my life and taking notes [whispers in disbilief]. This is more than a dream come true! At the end he said “Is it ok if I call him the tequila bat?” and I said “You can call him whatever! Whatever you call him, that is going to be the official name for it forever!”.
The tequila bat was endangered in Mexico about 20 to 30 years ago, and now with the conservation work that you and your team have done it is out of the endangered list. What were the main factors endangering this species?
So in 1983 and 1984 I joined a group from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, me from the Mexican side, and we went to visit many of the known roosts of the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-nosed bat, two species of the genus Leptonycteris. We realized that the number of bats on most of the roosts had either declined to zero or corresponded to only a few hundred bats left. What had happened at the time was basically vandalism in the caves. People would come into the caves to burn them or throw rocks at the bats or fumigate the caves because they thought they were vampire bats.
That’s why environmental education is a major tool for us. Because in a flash you can give me whatever audience, either senators or kindergardeners (and many times there’s not so many diferences between the two, and that is unfair to the kindergardeners) and I convince them. I show them the data, the evidence and the images and people change. In this case, many of the caves that were affected were next to a community, so we sat down with that community. We sat down with the third and fourth grade school children, with the leaders and with the mothers, and we changed their perspectives. If you ask me what was the most successful group to approach to affect the change: number one, the mothers; number two, the children. Men are out of this picture. They don’t get it until their child tells them that bats are allies and mothers keep hammering on that. It’s incredible. If you want to make a change in a community go to the women and to the children.
(Laughs) So it’s like a second degree influence.
Exactly. And not only that. We go visit a community and the first thing we do is a questionnaire on bats. Of course they know nothing the first time we do it. After the environmental education program, that lasts from 2 to 3 weeks, we apply another questionnaire – and they’ve learned. Then we come back 5 or 6 years later and we again apply the questionnaire, and guess what? The children already know. Because they’re younger siblings of the ones that took the first course, who just conveyed the information to the house. So that’s been working really well.
Do you feel you have to make significant changes in your message to be able to communicate it to different groups, such as families and senators?
Yes, you have to shift it and hit them where it hurts. For children you just touch their imagination. “What do you think this bat does?”, and you show them a face with a long snout, or big eyes, or big ears. And the kid is going to start thinking. Another example is for the senators. To them you say “This is an emergence of bats in this cave in Northern Mexico: it’s a total of 3 or 4 million bats. Each million bats destroys 10 tons of insects every night”. That goes directly into their pockets! So everybody has a different point of entry. The trick is to find it to drive the point home.
Were you aware of the importance of communication since the beginning of your work in conservation, or its importance became clear to you later on, as you realized the need to involve the communities?
I have always been a firm believer in the fact that we get public funds, so it is mor fair for us to be isolated in an ivory tower. We owe our very existence to those people outside. So shutting that door is like closing your eyes and pretending that the dinossaur is not there. Well, I’m sorry, but the dinossaur is there and we owe our existence to it. If we want to have a job in the future and we want to have our work valued we need to go back to that sector of society and show them why they need to continue investing in science.
The word “science” is, unfortunately, cloaked with a layer of fear. Most people fear science, because of the mad scientist stereotype. “Oh, he’s a scientist, he speaks a different language, he’s off in the clouds thinking all the time in his experiments...”. We are humans like everyone else. And this fact, that you as a scientist cannot communicate with anybody in society, makes you not to be a good scientist. As a scientist you have to be able to shift the language that you use so that your message really goes accross. This is absolutely crucial. And I think I may have a particular ability to conform to whatever the language that is needed to convey the message. I’m training my students in the same way. This is one of the exercises I do with them: I ask them to give a talk and I tape them. Then I sit down with each one and talk about which things they are doing right and wrong. That has made the members of my group some of the really good communicators in Mexico.
Let me go back a bit, to the tequila bat. Were there other causes for this species to be endangered?
Yes. These bats migrate right through where the tequila is produced. Are you familiar with the designation of origin?
Think of conhaque: it’s just a brandy, but any other brandy cannot be called conhaque. Conhaque is the designation of origin of only the conhaque region of France. Now, tequila is a special kind of something called mezcal. Mezcal was the original name for any distilled alcohol coming from an agave. If you go to Mexico you will find that mezcal is present everywhere, but it has a relatively negative reputation, because it’s like a lower level market. The original name of tequila is mezcal de tequila – mezcal from the town of tequila. But some marketing genius realized that if he kept the word mezcal there people would not buy it. So he dropped the word mezcal and he called it tequila. Then he worked on the designation of origin, which is in this case in three states of Northern Mexico.
Then they started refining the way in which they produce tequila. Agaves grow and accumulate sugars until the plant is mature enough and invests everything in one reproductive event – one flower, which is what makes the bats come – and then they die. Each agave plant makes the same strategy. What happens is that when you’re producing tequila you can replant your crop with what we call the clonal agaves – the little buddying agaves that grow under the mother plant. When they harvest they select a few of the agaves that produced the most clonal agaves, and they replant those out in the field. With this, they’re refining the genetics.
Less genetic diversity...
Exactly! They’re forcing the plant to loose diversity because they’re only using the clones of very few plants, generation after generation. So in 1994, when we were starting the recovery plan, I went to see this. I said to the producers: this used to be the migrating corridor for the species; now it is endangered, in part because there is no food for them. It’s very paradoxical to think that you have millions of plants here but not a single one is going to be allowed to bloom. You have tequila today because the bats have pollinated it for millions of years! It’s time for you to start investing: not only because you owe it to the bats, but because of your own self-interest. With that refining of the genetics all agaves are genetically the same. All you need is one disease to hit one plant, and all plants are going to be hit.
They never paid attention. Until 6 years ago a disease showed up. And then they come back knocking on my door. “What was that thing about the bats and the flowers and the nectar and the genetics?...” I said: you’re late. The bats are not going to solve the problem overnight, you have to start investing now, maybe to see the benefits in 10 years. All that I asked was 5% of the plants to bloom. With that the bats are going to have a very significant amount of food available for their migration. If you do that, the University of Mexico and the Bartenders Association of the United States will give you this label – Bat Friendly – which is going to tell the consumer that this sustainably produced and that you are getting a better product as a result.
The Bartenders Association are crazy about it, they love the idea. Because they want to educate their consumers, and they want to have a nice story behind. So right now we have 5 brands of mezcal with the label Bat Friendly and by the end of this year we’re going to have 5 brands of tequila with the label Bat Friendly.
You’re most known for your work with bats, but in fact you work with several different endangered species. Which other projects do you have going on?
We’re filming right now three documentaries with the BBC – three at the same time [whispers in disbilief]. And one with National Geographic. So a total of four, this year.
Are they going to be released soon?
Probably by the second half of 2017. One of them is going to touch on jaguars. Jaguars are a much more difficult species to film: it’s not easy to show a jaguar like a lion or a leopard or a tiger in the wild. Jaguars are a lot more timid, they don’t like humans around them. So whenever you have humans, they go away. I probably have seen jaguars in the wild, without capturing them, maybe 5 times in my life. And everytime I go to Africa I see leopards, and lions and everything. You can see all of the other cats very easily compared to jaguars.
It’s not going to be a full documentary on jaguars. It’s going to be on how the Mayans used the Mayan rainforest, how the jaguar permeated the Mayan culture, and how that has influenced today’s Mexican culture. Mexico was the first country in the world to have an estimate of how many jaguars do we have. There’s another country, the United States. Guess how many jaguars do they have?
One old male that dispersed from one of the populations that I work on in the North of Mexico. It dispersed accross the border. It’s a very old male, not fertile anymore. There are no females around. The only hope for the US is to invest in the conservation of that Northern population in Mexico, so that they have a corridor going. They’re not doing it. We are doing it, they are not.
Which other projects, with other endangered species, do you have going on?
We’re working on bighorn sheep, trying to make it into an initiative to illustrate how biological diversity can really become a source of wealth for the local people. And we’re also working on pronghorn antelope. Pronghorn antelope is this little ungulate that lives in North America only: North of Mexico to the US to Canada. This species is deeply endangered in Mexico, we have about a thousand. We’ve been reintroducing them from New Mexico into Northeastern Mexico. We are hoping that in 5 years time we are going to have a total of 5 populations established – right now we have 4. We need one more in the centre North of Mexico.
We’ve done work on black bear, we’ve done work on international conservation. I’ve been part of the Mexican team before the CITES convention [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], I’ve been working on CITES since 1999. I continued to invest my time there because I think that CITES was signed at a time in which the world was young and naiive, and the rulers of the world were willing to sign something saying “If I don’t abide by the convention, you slap my hand”. Right now, there is absolutely no hope of doing it.
I’ve seen CITES work many times for conservation. In fact this is why I’m here right now. I teach at the University of Andaluzia, in Southern Spain, a course for CITES authorities from the developing world every other year. This time the authorities are coming mostly from West Africa: from Togo, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Republic of Congo... And then some people from Asia: we have for example people from China, Thailand, Indonesia. And we have 2 people from the US and one Mexican. I find it very rewarding that you teach your students that year, and 2 or 3 years later you meet them in the CITES conventions, there representing their country. It’s incredible!
Among all your projects, you also find time for teaching – teaching classes with different kinds of students and with different goals. Which advice would you give to a student that would like to pursue a career in conservation?
The first thing that I tell a student that wants to join my group is: I am not here to make clones of Rodrigo Medellín. I don’t want to make you into another me; I want to help you get wherever you want to be. You tell me how do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years, and my job is to help you get there. I taught many people along my career, and many of them are where they wanted to be. My advice to students is that they should not be blinded by the reputation of the professors. Go and meet them before you take a jump and dive into their universes. Get to know them first, and get a clear and objective image of how they are, of how they are going to reflect on your own personal and professional development. And then think whether you like that or not. If you don’t like it go elsewhere.
The other thing is a personal limitation of mine. I tell the students: if you and I are not able to have a good, human-level communication and relationship in which we can sit down and discuss a good tequila, a good movie, a good book or enjoy a good meal – because my hobbie is to cook, I cook for my students all the time –, if I cannot have that kind of interaction with you, you can be the best academic of the world but I will not be able to work with you.
Another thing: when you are looking for a professor, do not, by all you like in your life, do not send an email saying “I want to work with you”. You don’t know how many of those things I get and my immediate reaction is delete. Take the time to look at the website, download a few papers, read them and come up with a perspective, with something that says that you really invested some time on that.
Now, at the same time there is also the big question of jobs. I can tell you that if you come to this field thinking that you are going to be rich, you are absolutely wrong. What I can tell you is that if you put enough passion and commitment and you work hard as hell, the money is going to come and you’re going to be able to live a decent life. There’s a lot of competition out there, and I wouldn’t want to be young again and trying to look for a job. But, knock on wood, everyone who has graduated from my lab has a job.
For example: everyone in my lab is connected to everyone else’s project, they all share and help each other all the time. People who are working on the jaguars in the rainforest are often in the deserts looking at the tequila bats. Number 2, the graduate students help me supervise the undergraduates. Otherwise, when you graduate as a PhD you have never had an opportunity to supervise a student. So what are you going to do? You’re going to learn with the first one! And nobody told you how to deal with one of those students, so you end up making lots of mistakes. Number 3: in a country like Mexico – and I suspect that’s the same thing in Portugal – if you, as an established scientist, don’t know how to raise your own funds, you’re dead in the water. So everyone, from the youngest undergraduate to the oldest postdoc, is responsible to raise their own funds. I help them, and I write many of the grants and everything, but I want them to have the experience onto how to write a grant, how to approach a donor, how to keep a donor happy, how to submit reports in a good way. Never, ever, be upset, by the donor coming back and asking for another report – that is only an indicator of their interest on your work, and that is exactly how you want them.
And number 4: everyone shares in the paperwork. In the administration of a grant, submitting receipts, writing reports, everyone does that. Because, again, when you graduate you have no idea of what a nightmare an administration can be, such as the administration of a university the size the University of Mexico, which is the second largest in the world.
Last but not least, I would like to emphasize that every human being, by nature, is a scientist. From a child, from a toddler, who is experimenting with sucking on everything they find. That is science at work. They are being scientists. What we have not understood, over so many years of human species destroying the world, is that we kill that scientific spirit in the process of growing up. Being a scientist is the same as being a child. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a child. We need more children, in that sense, in the world. What we need is that spirit of adventure and experimenting and learning from the natural world in every different aspect. So do not be afraid of scientists and do not be afraid of being a scientist. Because we have the most fun!