LLANO GRANDE 2 – Tucked among the banana plants and palm trees in the dusty countryside 8 kilometers outside of Masaya, the rural campesino village of Llano Grande 2 is a friendly place to visit during the day. Neighbors walk unhurriedly along winding foot paths though the fields to call on family and friends, or ride their bikes to the town’s only corner store, where people meet and greet each other on a first-name basis.
But when the sun goes down each afternoon, the situation here changes.
For the past year, this community and the two surrounding villages have been terrorized by vampire bats, which sneak into people’s bedrooms at night and feed on the blood of unsuspecting victims as they sleep.
In the past year, more than 70 people have been bitten in this community and the two neighboring villages, according to government authorities in Masaya. None of the victims have yet to test positive for rabies.
In rural and impoverished areas like Llano Grande 2, the vampires have no problem sneaking into most people’s homes. The bats enter either through gaps in the wood-plank walls, holes in the roof or through decorative cinderblocks used for ventilation.
Most people who are attacked never even see the vampire enter their bedroom or hop across the floor toward their bed. Nor do they feel the quick, razor-like incision, usually made at the tip of their big toe or finger.
Most victims don’t even wake up until much later, where their dreams are interrupted by the sensation that their feet, hands or legs are drenched in warm, sticky blood.
“The aftermath of a vampire attack is very messy; victims can bleed for hours after being bit,” says zoologist and vampire-bat expert Bill Schutt.
According to Schutt, vampire bats have an anti-coagulating agent in their saliva that leaves their victims bleeding profusely after an attack. Vampire bats also have a tendency to return to the same victim and bite them again the following night, reopening the same wound. That’s the reason why poultry – or even goats – have been found mysteriously bled to death in fields, an unseen crime that often gets blamed on the mythical chupacabras, a legendary beast said to prey on farm animals in the countryside.
Vampires are extremely rare among bat species – only three of 1,100 bat species are sanguivores – and they normally feed on livestock. Bats are also very good about controlling their populations to not exceed their natural food supply, according to leading international bat expert Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International.
The problem, Tuttle says, is when populations of livestock are suddenly sold or moved to new pastures, forcing the bats, which normally don’t leave a 5 kilometer radius, to seek alternative sources of blood from poultry, pigs, horses and – in the case of Llano Grande 2 – humans.
In Llano Grande 2, the vampires were found living in an abandoned, uncapped well in a nearby field. On the moonless night of Feb. 24, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR) sent José Amador and Carlos Iván Iglesias – animal veterinarians by day, vampire hunters by night – to Llano Grande 2 to capture the winged mammals.
As dusk approached, the two men set up nylon capture nets at a tight perimeter around the well. The net was about 10 feet high, sufficient to trap the vampires, which rarely fly higher than a meter off the ground, according to Amador.
By 7:30 p.m. – early by vampire standards – the hunters caught their first bat, a baby vampire that got tangled in the net as it left the well in search of blood.
Using thick fire gloves and head lamp, Amador and Iglesias carefully untangled the bat, which hissed and snapped furiously at their gloved hands.
After the bats are caught, the veterinarians usually apply its body with a poisonous gel and release it to return to its roost, where the other vampires lick it clean and kill themselves in the process.
Some of the captured bats – especially the more aggressive ones – are brought to health authorities and tested for rabies.
During last week’s vampire hunt, Amador and Iglesias caught four bats in total, and at least one escaped through the net. The men said they would have to return to the village in several weeks to make sure the bats have been exterminated.
Most vampire colonies have a dozen or so bats, although some have been detected with more than 100, according to Tuttle.
In some cases, vampire bats cohabitate in the same cave as other insect- and fruit-eating bats, so conservationists warn against trying to try eradicating vampires by using explosives or other indiscriminate techniques that kill beneficial bats as well.
Most bat species are beneficial, especially to people living in tropical, agriculture areas such as Nicaragua, according to Tuttle. In addition to eating tons of pounds of mosquitoes each year, many bats consume other insect pests that are harmful to crops and forests, Tuttle said.
“Bats are also key pollinators and seed dispersers in tropical regions like Nicaragua. No other group of animals equals bats when it comes to dispersing seeds into cleared areas, leading to reforestation,” Tuttle told The Nica Times in an email from the Conservation’s offices in Texas.
The bat expert added that the cactus fruit Pitaya, which is very popular in Nicaragua and even produced commercially here, relies on bats for pollination.
Even vampire bats may prove to serve a greater medical use in the future, Tuttle said.
The curious and potent anti-coagulating agent in their saliva is already been studied by scientists to see if can somehow be used to treat or prevent strokes.
But for the residents of Llano Grande 2, the more immediate concern is to rid their community of the nocturnal menaces.
“The vampires are dangerous, of course we are scared,” said resident Albertina del Carmen Reyes, whose rustic wood-plank shanty is filled with gaps big enough for the vampires to sneak in at night.
Reyes’ five-year old granddaughter was attacked in her sleep several weeks ago, and awoke in a blood soaked bed.
“The government tells us to cover our beds with mosquito nets at night, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” she said.