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'Butterfly' Project May Help Kenyan Forest Survive - 2002-09-03

The Arabuko-Sokoke forest, along Kenya's northern coast, is the largest indigenous coastal forest left in East Africa. But its survival is under threat from local people, who would like the land to farm. Now, a project financed by the U.N. Development Program is using butterflies to persuade local people not to cut down the trees.

At one time, the Arabuko-Sokoke forest stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. Now, just 400-square kilometers remain, in Kenya.

Arabuko-Sokoke is home to several plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Endangered species like the African elephant and the Sokoke bushy tailed mongoose also live in this protected reserve, about 80 kilometers north of Mombasa city.

Visitors from all over the world come to Arabuko-Sokoke to see some of the 230 kinds of birds that live here, among them, six globally-threatened species.

But for most of the local people, who live in extreme poverty, the forest brings suffering and conflict. Elephants and baboons often emerge from the forests at night and destroy crops. Local people who try to supplement their meager incomes by taking wood from the forest often find themselves in trouble with the authorities.

One man who lives on the edge of Arabuko-Sokoke, Charo Ngambao, says he was jailed for illegally logging. "We have to go in the forest and cut timbers, and then we take them to the furniture place to sell there, but it is not allowed," he says. "It is dangerous, because, sometimes, you are caught there by forest guards, so you have to go to prison. So I stayed there two weeks, but then I have to pay the fine. Very bad. So I don't like to go back there again."

Ten years ago, the majority of local people wanted the forest to be cut down and allocated to them as farmland. This would have meant extinction for the forest's endangered species.

In 1993, conservationists came up with an idea to persuade locals that preservation of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest is in their interests, too, the Kipepeo Project. Kipepeo means butterfly in the local Kiswahili language.

Today, Mr. Ngambao no longer steals wood from the forest. Instead, he grows butterflies, which he sells to butterfly houses at zoos and other facilities in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Ngambao uses the forest as a source of butterflies and butterfly eggs. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars, he looks after them until they pupate. The pupae are then quickly exported overseas before the butterflies emerge.

In a good week, Mr. Ngambao earns about 20 U.S. dollars from selling butterfly pupae. And, he now has money to send his children to school and pay for medical treatment. With loans from Kipepeo, his family has also been able to set up two other businesses. "We have opened a kiosk there at Mida center, so we have a business there," he says. "And my wife also is tailoring. She has a machine. We get that machine from butterfly man, and then the business is a man from Kipepeo. So, it's good."

The majority of butterfly farmers are women. Looking after the caterpillars is an easy job they can fit in while doing other domestic chores. Even children can help out.

Florance Riziki is a busy mother of six. She says butterfly farming has changed her attitude toward the forest. Ms. Riziki says, before the Kipepeo Project started, she did not benefit from the forest. But, she says, she now benefits because of the butterflies. She says she now has money to use to do things for herself.

Her husband, Matano Unda, says the Kipepeo farmers have now become guardians of the forest. "We want the forest to remain as it is. We are now trying to conserve it by looking who is the enemy, who is going to cut timbers or trees," he says. "Then we are trying to tell him to change, maybe to start rearing butterflies, instead of cutting the tress."

Not everyone is happy. There simply is not a big enough overseas market for butterflies for everyone to join the Kipepeo Project. Those who have been left out criticize the butterfly farmers for standing in the way of their efforts to get the forest cleared and given out as farmland.

Despite the tensions, Kipepeo manager Washington Ayiemba believes the project has been a great success. "With the butterfly farming, increasingly, we have seen them taking heart. Initially, we had only 150 recruited. But now, we have each year over one-thousand people who want to participate, and we have to limit them to only 700, because of the market problems," he says. "Increasingly, even people up to five kilometers from the forest now have an interest in being involved in these income-generating activities that are forest-based."

Critics say the project could not survive without donor funding. But, Mr. Ayiemba says the benefits cannot simply be measured in monetary terms. "Trying to balance the trade between conservation and providing development has a cost to itself, and more so in the area of education and awareness, where you spend money, and you are not really sure that you'll get the return," he says. "In terms of big business, we'll say that the profits are quite small. But in terms of driving the conservation agenda, then it's been a showcase, where at least communities have been able to participate, and the program has been able to sustain itself now, breaking even after about four years."

The market for butterflies is seasonal, so the Kipepeo Project is looking for other ways, in which the forest can benefit local communities, such as bee-keeping. The honey is already being sold to nearby hotels, and Mr. Ayiemba hopes exports will be possible in the future.