Good tidings are in the offing for butterfly farmers within the Arabuko Sokoke Forest in Kilifi County after a team of renowned international butterfly exhibitors and suppliers from all over the world expressed interest in buying the products.
The international butterfly exhibitors together with scientists were in Malindi, for a weeklong scientific conference to learn more about the African butterfly which is bred at Arabuko Sokoke forest.
More than 7,000 farmers living adjacent to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest are engaged in butterfly farming dubbed Kipepeo Project.
Since the Kipepeo Project started in 1993 farmers collect the butterfly from the forest and breed them to sell the pupae which are exported to markets in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
Global exhibitors have annual conferences and tour the countries where there is large production of butterfly to see how the products are made and the different species available.
This year due to the efforts by the Arabuko Sokoke farmers they got recognition to receive the special guests from nine world renowned butterfly exhibitors under the international Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers.
They were hosted by the Kipepeo Project management and majorly discussed issue of butterfly farming, available species and how best to improve the market.
The exhibitors said they have many interests in African butterfly because they are unique and attract many clients in their countries.
Michael Buckman, President of International Association of Butterfly Association and Suppliers led the delegation of 43 exhibitors, suppliers and scientists.
The conference was held at Sai Eden Roc Hotel in Malindi with field trips tjhat took them to the Kipepeo project at Gedi Ruin and visited butterfly farmers in Arabuko Sokoke forest to see how they breed the butterflies.
Buckman said they came to see the caterpillar and Pupae and also learn how the community contributes to social improvement of forest by breeding butterfly without destroying the unique forest.
“We came to see where the butterflies are coming from; the conference is discussing mainly butterfly breeding,’’ he said.
Buckman said that there were many opportunities for butterfly farmers as the market was focusing to get the products from Africa and Kenya in particular.
He said that with the recent introduction if direct flights between Kenya and the US by Kenya Airways, it would be easier for appliers to speed up transportation of the products which are delicate in nature.
''For a very long time, transportation has been a major problem for suppliers especially in the US due to a number of issues ranging from easy access to strict rules at the customs and immigration,'' he said.
Currently he said the demand for butterfly is growing at a very high rate and expressed optimism that it would contribute to not only economic development of the farmers but also reduce the pressure of destruction of forests.
Worldwide there are over 21,000 diverse species of butterfly with Africa having 3800.
Experts say Kenya has 871 species with 263 found in the Arabuko Sokoke forest.
Butterflies are reportedly classified into families and genera. In the Arabuko Sokoke forest there are five families and 58 genus.
Each of the types has different rates when exported abroad.
Among the participants in the conference was the founder of Kipepeo Project Ian Gordon a Zoologist from Britain who has worked and lived in Kenya since 1987.
Gordon has been a lecture in universities in Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya but quit his job to started butterfly breeding project in Arabuko Sokoke forest.
The zoologist said he has been conducting research for African butterflies and his idea of breeding came up after the Industry rose up in the 1970s.
His idea to choose Arabuko Sokoke forest was as a result of the threats of the unique coastal forest which was getting pressure from the communities through destruction charcoal burning and poaching.
His research found out that 96 percent of people living adjacent to the Arabuko sokoke forest were not happy with the forest due to the continuous destruction of crops by elephants.
“I was aware of the problem and found butterfly farming as a way of promoting conservation,’’ he said.
To him he said the butterfly farming was important to enable locals living adjacent to the forest generate income and make use of the resources from the forest without destroying it.
Gordon started the project with a mere capital of 50,000 US Dollars which was given as a grant by the global Environment Family and today he is happy it has grown to over Sh. 2 million dollars.
“It wasn’t easier at the beginning, people found me as a crazy mzungu catching butterflies, my biggest task was to get people try to catch butterflies,’’ he says.
After the first group of locals got reward of cash from the butterflies, he said they realized that the job was much easier than poaching, charcoal burning or logging which was tough and dangerous.
Gordon then begun following the legal framework to obtain the legal permits for exporting the butterfly pupae to Europe and America.
They were supposed to supply the products weekly to ensure the exhibitors got fresh shipment.
He says the project which aims at conservation has really helped in poverty alleviation and is a happy man having witnessed the growth.
Gordon says the government played a big role by fencing the Arabuko Sokoke forest which has helped in preventing the elephants from crossing to people’s farms.
Calinder Bliz , one of the exihibitors who owns a butterfly garden in Germany said Kenyan butterflies are unique because they are different from those in South America and Malaysia.
She said their visit to the country has helped them understand how local farmers work.
“In our country it is difficult to have good pupae because of the weather,’’ she says.
The major problem facing the exhihibitors is transportation of the products as some hatch before reaching the destination.
Hussein Aden, a research scientist from National Museums of Kenya and Kipepeo Butterfly project manager said that the project started way back in 1993 with the basic objective of improving community livelihood to those leaving adjacent to the Arabuko forest and win the support of local communities towards conservation of Arabuko forest.
“The farmers were trained on basic skills on how to breed and rear butterflies in larval host plants of different species and how to establish butterfly breeding cages within their farms,’’ he says.
Aden says the pupae are delivered on Monday and Fridays at the Kipepeo butterfly Project where NMK officials do the sorting, grading packaging and connecting them to clients in Europe and USA.
Farmers are now earning from the project to educate their children change their lifestyle and link conservation development through sustainable utilization of Butterfly biodiversity in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest for the benefit of surrounding rural communities.
Arabuko Sokoke Forest produces 75% of butterfly pupae sales from six out of the 263 species found in the forest.
She says the visit by the international exhibitors has brought hope and morale to work extra hard.
Abbas Shariff Athman, chairman of Arabuko Sokoke Forest and Dwellers Association said for decades’ communities living adjacent to the forest face challenges from elephants who destroyed their crops.
This contributed to human wildlife conflicts and locals were forced to turn against the forest by engaging in illegal activities which threatened the forest.
However, since the introduction of butterfly farming, Athman said that communities are benefitting a lot.
High peak season for butterfly farming in Arabuko Sokoke is from the months of April to August.