Harnessing butterflies to save Kenyan forests

The farmers and the butterfly conservationists have identified more than 263 species in the forest, of which 70 have commercial potential.(Kipepeo Butterfly House)

The farmers and the butterfly conservationists have identified more than 263 species in the forest, of which 70 have commercial potential.(Kipepeo Butterfly House)

In the Arabuko Forest, it’s not difficult to see why the beautiful jewel colours of the butterflies are referred to as “flying gold.”  Farmers gave the name out of admiration for the beauty of the insects.

But the name is very apposite in another way, too: Through a community-based conservation project, Kipepeo, farmers are earning a living from the forest by rearing butterfly and moth pupae for export to live exhibits and butterfly houses in Europe and America.

Fighting illegal logging

Arabuko is the most extensive indigenous forest on the east African coast. The forest is home to about 30 percent of Kenya’s butterfly species.

“The fact that we have a vast array of butterfly markets has given us farmers opportunities to make big profits,” farmer Katana Charo said.
“It has also helped [us] in enrolling and recruiting many farmers who used to destroy the forest by logging,” Charo added.

In the past, the farmers could earn a maximum of $150 per week from the illegal logging, but often it was much less.  Because it was illegal, the returns were not guaranteed. Farmers have been taught which types of butterflies are needed on the market and on which plants they tend to lay their larvae, as well as how to rear a butterfly without damaging the indigenous population. “We enter the forest to search butterflies and bring them home. We collect their eggs and let them grow until they reach the pupa stage,” Bernard Iha told DW.

The farmers and the butterfly conservationists have identified more than 263 species in the forest, of which 70 have commercial potential. The Kipepeo Butterfly House in Kilifi County is where the farmers take their butterflies while they are still at the pupal stage for export.

Hussein Aden, the Kipepeo project manager, says that the butterflies are exported for exhibition purposes.

“This project was introduced with the objective of improving community livelihood,” Aden said, adding that Kenyans living adjacent to Arabuko Forest have now understood the importance of conserving it. “They have established a butterfly breeding cage within their homesteads.”

The farmers are paid around $200 per week. It’s enough to cater for their needs and paying for school fees for their kids, they say.

No more illegal logging

According to Aden, locals have been taught on how to breed the butterflies instead of going back to illegal logging. The local communities have been chopping down the forest, and many species including butterflies and birds were threatened. But today, they’re making fortunes from the butterflies. — DW

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