A straw-colored fruit bat flies past other bats roosting on a tree in the background. Photo by Michael Blees

By Joel Maybury 

Monrovia, Liberia, is ranked as one of the world’s wettest capital cities according to the Liberian Hydrological Services and Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. So umbrellas are not just a convenience, they’re essential. But Embassy Monrovia’s staff and their family members also use umbrellas during the dry season because of a local wildlife hazard—guano droppings from approximately 250,000 straw-colored fruit bats, to be more precise.

From left: DCMR employees Nancy Gartor and Trokon Hargreaves use umbrellas to protect themselves from bat guano when walking under the tree canopy that surrounds the DCMR. Photo by Joel Maybury.
From left: DCM residence employees Nancy Gartor and Trokon Hargreaves use umbrellas to protect themselves from bat guano when walking under the tree canopy that surrounds the residence. Photo by Joel Maybury.

Without an umbrella, one runs the risk of being struck by bat guano when passing under the canopies of mango, Indian fig, and palm trees that surround the deputy chief of mission’s (DCM) residence on the old embassy compound. Massive bat colonies also roost on the embassy grounds, another likely place to get hit by bat guano.  

The straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) has a lifespan of 15 to 22 years, and its nightly visits to flowers and fruit for food make it an important pollinator and agent for seed dispersal. Bat season in Monrovia typically begins in November at the end of the rainy season. These “flying foxes” return to the same trees year after year much as migratory birds return to the same forests, parks, and gardens. When the rainy season returns, typically in early May, the colonies travel hundreds of miles away to caves in neighboring Guinea.  

By late afternoon, the bats, which have hung upside down all day, slowly prepare to peel away from their roosts. As the sun sets, the grove of trees surrounding the DCM’s residence comes alive with the chirping and squealing of bats at very high decibel levels. By dusk, the entire colony starts its movement away from Mamba Point, where the U.S. embassy resides, to distant sources of fruit in the Liberian forests and plantations. This is when an umbrella comes in handy. The colony returns well before dawn, raucously settling back in the trees outside the DCM’s bedroom window.

DCM Joel Maybury describes this daily routine as his “4 to 4:30 a.m. alarm clock.”

Embassy Monrovia staff have nicknamed the DCM residence the “Bat Cave,” but Maybury, who spent his high school years in Kenya and is an experienced wildlife watcher, thinks of his residence as more of a safari lodge, complete with viewing deck. During bat season, he treats visitors to an up-close view of the bat population. Binoculars are not required because the nearest clusters hang about 12 feet from the terrace.  

DCM Joel Maybury observes native birds and bats in trees around the DCMR. Photo by Antoinette Hodge
DCM Joel Maybury observes native birds and bats in trees around the DCM residence. Photo by Antoinette Hodge

Incredibly, the bats do not fly through the covered terrace—a favored spot for representational events and evening relaxation. When Maybury is out on the terrace at dusk, he has had bats fly directly toward him, only to make a 90-degree turn within five or six feet of his face. 

In addition to bats, Maybury, an avid birdwatcher, has identified more than 40 avian species on the compound, everything from raucous Western plantain-eaters to cattle egrets. Egrets and bats have a symbiotic relationship, with the egrets picking up insects that the bats disturb. When the bats depart, so do the egrets. 

The presence of so many bats on the embassy compound has caused some consternation among embassy staff and their families about the risk of contracting Ebola. Some bat species carry the Ebola virus, but the ones that roost on embassy grounds are harmless. Liberia has not had a case of human Ebola since 2016. As scientists continue to search for links between bats and various viruses, a USAID-funded research project, called Predict, is trying to identify viruses before they spread to humans and cause epidemics. In 2019, researchers found a greater long-fingered bat in Liberia that carried Ebola.

Of historical note, the DCM residence served as the Marine Security Guard House from 1990 to 2012, as the chief of mission residence from 1954 to 1990, and as the U.S. Legation chancery and chief of mission residence from 1941 to 1954. All told, 15 heads of mission lived in the residence. A photograph of the building taken in the early 1940s shows almost no trees in the vicinity. 

From left: The DCM residence in Monrovia is shown in an archival photo from the middle of the last century showing an absence of trees where straw-colored fruit bats now roost. Photo courtesy of Embassy Monrovia; The residence is now surrounded by a canopy of trees where visitors are able to observe the bat colony just a few feet from the terrace. Photo by Joel Maybury

The DCM residence’s housekeeper, Nancy Gartor, has observed the growth of the bat colony over the years. 

“When I first began working here 10 years ago, only a few hundred bats were present. It’s many, many times more now,” she said. 

Joel Maybury is the deputy chief of mission at Embassy Monrovia.  

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