What began as a few fluttering flecks of black in the sky was soon a cloud of thousands.
It was sunset, and the millions of bats that had spent the day sleeping in the trees of the Ehotiles Islands Park in southeastern Côte d'Ivoire were heading out for a night of hunting insects.
"They taste great with rice and eggplant sauce," said Ahoua Nogbou, a 36-year-old fisherman and farmer who lives in a village near the park. "But we've stopped hunting the bats. They're protected."
As recently as two years ago it did not matter that the bats, antelopes, manatees, and other animalsnot to mention plant lifethat call these islands home were protected. The nearby villagers were notorious for stealing into the park to hunt, farm, or gather wood illegally.
But today, this little corner of West Africa is demonstrating that often the most effective aid efforts are not the ones that make the biggest headlines.
Development projects that are taken on with patience, rely on significant input from locals, and stress an educational element are those that have the best chance of making a lasting impact.
At this island park, such efforts are saving the environment as well.
"We'll make money selling chickens now," said Nogbou, turning his attention to the 130 clucking chickens that he and his fellow villagers are now raising in a project coordinated with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "We don't need the bats anymore."
Villagers' Cooperation Critical
The Ehotiles Island Park, created in 1974, had a difficult first quarter-century of existence. A cluster of six islands in Côte d'Ivoire's Aby Lagoon, the park provided one of the principal sources of income and food for most of the villages that dot the lagoon's shore.
"People used to climb into their canoes early in the morning, saying they were going fishing in the lagoon," said Nogbou. "But they'd spend all day in the park, killing antelope or filling burlap sacks with bats. When they snuck back out at night they'd have enough to feed their families and sell some too."
The hunters could get about $50 for a bag of 100 bats, according to villagers. A good-sized antelopea more difficult catchcould bring in even more. These are hefty sums in Ivory Coast, where the average annual income is less than U.S. $700 per person.
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