East Africa feels the butterfly effect

Beating the air with her homemade net, Aicha Ali chases a swirling black and turquoise butterfly. Far from indulging in a frivolous pastime, this Kenyan mother is earning crucial family income.

“I like capturing butterflies; it’s fun because I make some money,” she says, puffing as she wipes the sweat pearling on her nose after a frantic chase in the forest’s sandy trails.

Arabuko Sokoke on the Kenyan coast is known for its rare species of butterflies, which a development project called Kipepeo (“butterfly” in Swahili) is helping export to exhibits and museums in Europe and North America.

Forest dwellers in neighbouring Tanzania have also benefited from such butterfly-farming initiatives, which not only increase the local community’s economic wealth but also help protect the environment.

“I need the forest to feed the butterflies,” Aicha explains.

Only a few years ago, she and most of the 100 000 villagers living around Arabuko Sokoke “had a negative perception of the forest”, says Kenyan scientist Maria Fungomeli.

They saw the forest as little more than a refuge for the monkeys and elephants attacking their farms and a hostile growth that should be cut down to harvest timber, says Fungomeli, assistant director at Kipepeo project.

Deforestation is threatening what is the largest block of coastal forest remaining in East Africa as well as the rare animal species it shelters, such as the golden-rumped elephant shrew.

But what conservationists call “the butterfly effect” has started to pay off, both for Arabuko Sokoke and its inhabitants. About 800 families now live thanks to the sale of butterflies.

Flying handkerchiefs, emperor swallowtails and African blue tigers are some of the rare species collected at Kipepeo, fetching between $1 and $3 a piece for visiting tourists.

“I would be foolish to cut trees,” says Suleiman Kachuma (42), a villager who earns between $15 and $23 a month from his work with Kipepeo, double what he used to make selling timber. “Before, people had a few chickens and goats… Now there is a big change. Farmers have more chickens, some even have some cattle. The project really changed our lives.”

Pelisitna Isaac is equally adamant about the changes butterfly farming have brought to her lifestyle. “We did go hungry now and then, but now we can meet the needs of the children: medical care, school fees uniforms,” she says, sorting pupae at the project’s collection centre.

Kipepeo, launched in 1993 with funds from the United Nations Development Programme, buys only pupae. The villagers therefore have to breed the butterflies after capturing them.

George Jefwa closed his shop down a few years ago to build his butterfly “farm”: a large, netted wooden cage teeming with multicoloured butterflies. He has learnt to identify dozens of different types of butterflies and moths, and regularly collects their eggs from the cage.

Jefwa then places them in a plastic box for five days and drops the newly morphed caterpillars on plants, where they feed before the penultimate stage of their transformation into pupae ready for export.

In Tanzania’s Usumbura mountains, butterflies are also revolutionising local traditions. Farmers who had been earning a meagre living producing cash crops such as coffee and bananas are now reaping the rewards of butterfly farming, says the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group.

The community will earn $50 000 in 2007 from the project, the group said in a recent statement.

“The forests are better protected now. The community knows that the base populations of butterflies and host plants must be conserved if the enterprise is to continue,” the statement said. “A recent survey found much higher conservation awareness among butterfly farmers compared to those not involved in the venture.”

Kenya’s Kipepeo project has been so successful with the local population that it is struggling to find buyers for the thousands of pupae collected in Arabuko Sokoke.

“We get 200 000 pupae a year. But we market only 25% of them,” says Fungomeli.

She explains that gaining new markets is crucial to keep the project alive and bring on board those villagers who are still chopping down the forest’s endangered tropical trees. — AFP

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