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How butterflies are saving East Africa's largest coastal forest

By Caroline Chebet | Dec 14th 2020 | 4 min read
By Caroline Chebet | December 14th 2020
Abbas Athman at his butterfly farm bordering Arabuko-Sokoke forest in Kilifi. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

From afar, it looks like a game revolving around a tree. It begins with a tiptoe, seek, ambush then hurrah! for a successful catch inside a sweep net.

It is the mastery to dart with the butterflies in East Africa’s largest coastal forest that makes locals to ‘collect money from trees.’ 

Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kilifi is home to endangered animals, but it is the butterfly export project that has given locals a lifeline.

“Here, we literally collect money from these trees. Butterflies within Arabuko-Sokoke is our lifeline and that is why we can never allow anyone to destroy our lifeline,” Abbas Athman, a butterfly farmer says.

On an ordinary day, while working on his farm, Mr Athman never misses a sweep net to trap butterflies. The catch is taken to a transparent cage in his compound that borders the forest. This, he says, is a venture he has been engaging in for the last 15 years.

“I no longer need to go to the forest. I planted almost every variety of food trees on my farm to attract butterflies. Different species of butterflies feed on fruits and leaves of different trees, which I have planted within my compound,” he says.

Keep them in cages

In the project, farmers trap adult butterflies and keep them in transparent cages made from nets. Inside the cages, different types of trees, also known as fruit trees, which the butterflies feed on, are put alongside fruits and artificial nectar.

The butterflies lay eggs that hatch into larvae before transforming into pupae and finally butterflies. Butterfly farming, however, entails the harvesting of pupae for export. The pupae then develop into adults while in the importing countries.

Within the importing countries, butterflies are big business, especially during summer and spring, where learners, researchers and visitors pay butterfly exhibition centres to experience and learn.

“To satisfy the growing demand for butterflies abroad, we engage in butterfly farming to export different species. A butterfly can lay between 50 and 120 eggs. To export, one pupa fetches up to Sh100, depending on the species,” he says.

In a good season, a farmer can fetch up to Sh15,000 in a week from exporting pupae, a project that was started by Nature Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya in 1993 to help conserve the critical ecosystem.

Athman is one of the more than 100,000 residents of 50 villages bordering the 420-square kilometre forest, and who engage in butterfly farming. He is also one of the leaders of the 27 butterfly groups in Arabuko-Sokoke.

To make the project viable, farmers like Athman have introduced several butterfly species. To introduce new species, he says, one has to get food trees, mostly indigenous trees, which in turn increases tree cover on their farms.

Once farmers harvest pupae for export, they take them to the Kipepeo Project centre within the forest, where they are packaged for export.

“The profit from a single indigenous tree in my compound is enough to feed me the entire year. That is the value of an indigenous tree because it will feed several butterflies that will in turn lay thousands of eggs. Most of the time, I have to release several to replenish those in the forest because they become too many,” Athman says.

Besides engaging in butterfly export business, Athman also sells indigenous trees to farmers who want to venture in the business.

The Kipepeo Project centre also trains butterfly farmers on sustainable forest management. 

The Kipepeo Project centre also trains butterfly farmers on sustainable forest management where they converge once a week.

At the centre, researchers, learners and tourists learn about butterfly species in the expansive forest. Butterfly exhibition takes place within the centre where bee-keepers also sell honey harvested from villages around the forest.

“This project has helped a lot of farmers who have ventured into export business. The centre has also risen to be a model in how communities can benefit from forest conservation whereas it is also a learning centre where learners and researchers from across the country visit,” Mathias Ngonyo, assistant manager, Kipepeo project says.

Mr Ngonyo notes that United Kingdom and Turkey are key markets especially between March and October. Low season however sets in between November and February during winter in importing countries.

Nature Kenya Coast Regional Coordinator Francis Kagema said the success of the butterfly project in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest has since been replicated in Kakamega, Kwale and Taita Hills as part of initiatives to conserve the forests. He says farmers protect the critical forest that has since been recognised as a Man and Biosphere Reserve.

A biosphere reserve is an area that comprises terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems, and that promotes conservation while incorporating sustainable uses.

The forest is also home to six rare bird species - Clarke’s Weaver, Amani Sunbird, East Coast Akalat, Spotted Ground Thrush, Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoke Pipit.

Paul Gacheru, a species expert at Nature Kenya, says the forest is also home to the golden-rumped elephant shrew. Elephants, 230 bird species and 250 butterfly species are found in the forest.

Golden-rumped elephant shrew, according to International Union on Conservation and Nature, IUCN, is classified as endangered. It is found nowhere else in the world except Arabuko-Sokoke and the neighbouring Dakatcha woodland.

“The forest is critical in the coastal region. Besides being a home to endangered and endemic species, it is also an important part of Mida Creek, acting as a catchment area and providing the freshwater needed for the flourishing of the seven mangrove species in the creek,” Gacheru said.

He added that the forest was also a Centre for Endemism, meaning it is one of the few areas where restricted-range species overlap.

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