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Butterfly farmers are protecting east Africa’s largest coastal forest

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

Inside Kenya’s Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, hundreds of former illegal loggers have turned to butterfly farming - helping protect an important carbon sink and one of the last remaining patches of a once-continuous East Africa coastal forest.

By Evelyn Makena, bird story agency

Before becoming a butterfly farmer, Dickson Mbogo made a living by selling charcoal from trees he cut in the forest.

“In my search for food and an income, I was destroying the forest,” he said.

Now, after getting involved in butterfly farming, Mbogo’s weekly routine involves visiting sections of Kenya's eastern Arabuko-Sokoke Forest to capture butterflies using trapping nets.

Home to some of the world’s endangered animals and plants, the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve is the most extensive indigenous forest on the east African coast. Once part of an extensive coastal forest that ran from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, the forest is visible for miles along Kenya's north coast highway.

It is home to several threatened bird species, including Clarke’s weaver bird and the Sokoke scops owl, as well as endemic animals like the Aders’s duiker, the golden-rumped elephant shrew and the bushy-tailed mongoose. It is also home to elephants and other members of the "big five".

The forest also hosts almost 300 butterfly species. For local communities living adjacent to the forest, these butterflies are now the source of a sustainable livelihood, enhancing the conservation of a forest previously threatened by illegal logging.

Hussein Abdulahi Aden, a research scientist and project manager at Kipepeo. Photo : Evelyn Makena

At home, Mbogo places the butterflies in a netted cage that houses different varieties of trees for the butterflies to feed on and lay eggs.

“Butterflies can lay up to 300 eggs. After a few days, eggs hatch to caterpillars and feed on specific food plants until they develop into pupae,” explained Mbogo.

After the pupae stage, farmers take the insects to Kipepeo Center in Gede town, a few kilometers from their homes.

“Here, the insects are sorted according to species, graded, carefully wrapped in cotton for protection and packaged in boxes. They are then exported to markets in the United Kingdom,” said Hussein Abdulahi Aden, Project Manager of the Kipepeo Butterfly Project.

Butterfly pupae at Kipepeo Center at Gede. Photo : Evelyn Makena

From an initial 141 members when the project started, 872 farmers have now found a livelihood from rearing and selling butterflies. Farmers are paid for every pupa delivered, depending on the species type. Pupae can attract between Ksh. 90 - 225, (US$0.75 - 1.8) with farmers making collective earnings of up to Ksh.15 - 20 million (US$124,000 - 166,000) per year.

According to Aden, the Kipepeo project was started in 1993 by the National Museums of Kenya and other stakeholders to reduce pressure on the forest while offering an alternative source of income to locals. Initially, the project was met with resistance from the community.

“For a community used to subsistence farming of maize, cashew nuts and coconuts, the idea of butterfly farming was strange and perceived as mystical. There was also fear that this was a government project aimed at evicting them from their farms,” Aden explained. But other community members followed suit as the pioneer farmers began reaping the project’s benefits.

Farmers are organized into 26 groups near the 42,000-hectare forest, with the majority concentrated on the eastern side along the Mombasa-Malindi Highway. Among the butterfly species reared are the colourful African Swallowtail, Silver Stripped Charaxes and Taita Blue-banded Swallowtail. There are also other less colourful species, like the African Migrant.

The project buys all the pupae brought by the farmers. When supply is higher than the demand, the surplus is released to the Kipepeo Butterfly Exhibition House at Gede to educate the public on the insects. Some are released back into the forest for the continuity of species - ensuring that the forest is not only protected from the charcoal burners but is also well pollinated.

For Mbogo, who belongs to the Mkongani group of growers, where he is the vice-chair, butterfly farming has seen him earn Ksh.40,000 (US$330) or more, in a good month. From these earnings, the 42-year-old has managed to buy a plot, build a house and educate three of his siblings.

Hussein Abdulahi Aden, a research scientist and project manager at Kipepeo. Photo : Evelyn Makena

“One recently completed high school, another one is a nurse, and another one is a student at Mt. Kenya University, all thanks to butterfly farming,” he beams.

Besides earning an income, Mbogo has also established a 50-tree woodlot on his land, helping boost the area’s tree cover. Kipepeo supplies farmers with seedlings to plant in their homes for fuel, fruits and butterfly food trees to reduce reliance on the forest. Additionally, during World Environment Day, marked on 5th June, Kipepeo members participate in tree planting in the Arabuko forest, with each person planting the number of trees equal to their age.

In many ways, Kipepeo project members have become champions of conservation within the community. Sofia Saidi, a member of the Mkongani group, said that members report any suspicious activities they may come across in the forest to the relevant authorities, including Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service. The project has also trained volunteer community scouts who patrol the forest and deter illegal activities.

The Kipepeo project has also been crucial in improving food security in the community. Specific butterfly species play a vital role in pollination. According to Aden, a survey conducted within a five-kilometre radius of the forest boundary found that farms closer to the forest had better yields, indicating the impact of the butterflies on plant reproduction.

bird story agency


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