On the Wings of Hope

In Kenya, butterflies are saving a unique coastal forest and the impoverished people who live there

  • Don Boroughs
  • Jul 01, 2000

KAHINDI SAMSON slips through the dense underbrush of the Arabuko­Sokoke Forest, gracefully lifting his sandaled feet over a tangle of vines. This is familiar territory for the 23-year-old Kenyan. At age 12, he began stealing past the "No Entry" signs at the border of the forbidden forest, setting wire snares to catch small antelope and felling slow-growing trees for timber.

Poaching was the best work Samson could find on Kenya´s impoverished coast, and it helped feed his five younger brothers and sisters. But this risky business came at a cost. Whenever forest guards caught the scrawny youth, they would whip his bare skin with branches or march him to the police station to pay a fine.

The forest paid an even higher price. Muhuhu and other prized trees that once dominated the canopy have become scarce, their place taken by other, less valuable species. And snares have decimated the local population of Ader´s duiker, Africa´s most endangered antelope. Though one other population of these tiny ungulates clings to existence in Zanzibar, the handful of survivors in Arabuko­Sokoke are the last of their kind on the African mainland.

Today, however, neither Samson nor the endangered mammals and trees of the forest have anything to fear. For he no longer enters Arabuko­Sokoke illegally armed with saws and snares, but rather with a license and a butterfly net. Eyeing a green­banded swallowtail fluttering above him, Samson takes a running leap and with a deft swoop of his net catches the iridescent butterfly. "Ah, this one is pregnant," he notes, ogling her swollen abdomen.

After her eggs hatch in a cage outside Samson´s mud-daub home, the caterpillars will become his livestock, which he will fatten with leaves gathered from the forest. Within four weeks, each resulting chrysalis­­destined for butterfly display houses in America and Europe ­­will earn him more shillings than he used to make for a snared animal. For Samson and 550 other butterfly farmers in the area, these lucrative winged creatures now provide a reason to protect, rather than destroy, Arabuko­Sokoke. Butterflies have become the guardians of the forest.

In 1993, when butterfly farming was first introduced to the surrounding communities, Arabuko­Sokoke itself had a noose around its neck. Eighty-three percent of the farmers in the area wanted some of the forest cleared for cultivation; more than half hoped to see it cut down entirely. Thousands of squatters were threatening to stake their claims in the forest, confident that they had the backing of President Daniel Arap Moi. The understaffed Forest Department was losing the war against poachers.

This state of affairs alarmed conservationists, who knew that Arabuko­Sokoke was no ordinary patch of trees. The forest may be dwarfed by Kenya´s more famous reserves (Tsavo National Park is 50 times bigger), and it doesn´t even rate a mention in some tourist guidebooks, but Arabuko­Sokoke is one of East Africa´s most precious natural assets: the largest remnant of the great coastal forest that once stretched from southern Somalia to Mozambique.

It is also a final refuge for animals that once moved freely along a great swath of the now densely populated coast. Ornithologists have ranked the reserve as the second most important forest in Africa for bird conservation. Clarke´s weaver, for example, a golden bird wearing a black balaclava, flies nowhere else. On the ground, Arabuko­Sokoke harbors not only Ader´s duiker, but also the vast majority of the world´s remaining golden-rumped elephant shrews, cat-sized mammals with snouts worthy of a pachyderm.

One of the forest´s worried observers was Ian Gordon, a specialist in butterfly ecology, then lecturing at the University of Nairobi. "I´d had the repeated experience of having collected in an area and then going back to it and finding it devastated," he recalls. He saw Arabuko­Sokoke and its 250 butterfly species heading in the same direction.

But what to do? Along with conservationists throughout Africa, he believed that the old-fashioned approach of "fines and fences" was failing. "You can´t hope to conserve an area of biodiversity importance without the support of the local people," he argues. So with assistance from the National Museums of Kenya and a $50,000 grant from the Global Environmental Facility, administered by the United Nations, Gordon founded a project he named Kipepeo, which means "butterfly" in Swahili.

Potential butterfly farmers were chosen from among people with properties adjoining the forest and their immediate neighbors. Significantly, these were the community members most opposed to the forest because they had suffered most from baboons and elephants that raided their crops. Gordon intended to convert them into the frontline of the forest´s defense.

In February 1994, 133 skeptical butterfly farmers began selling chrysalises. For the first time in their lives, they could make money­­legally­­from the forest.

Last year, the Kipepeo Project exported more than 36,000 butterflies-in-waiting. At Samson´s farm, a Kipepeo representative shows up every Monday and Thursday morning to collect his chrysalises, which range in color from mottled brown to lime green with flecks of metallic gold. By the afternoon, the pupae are packaged and on their way to the coastal city of Mombasa, to be shipped by air express to Britain and the United States. The following week, they will take wing in places like Florida´s Cypress Gardens, where tourists pay to walk through a greenhouse flittering with more than a thousand colorful butterflies from around the world.

Display houses pay up to $2.50 for one chrysalis, of which about a dollar will go to Samson. In a good week, he earns the equivalent of $40, five times as much as he used to make for a hard week of construction work. The income has helped him buy flour and clothing for his family, and, he self-consciously admits, a stainless­steel watch for himself. A recent survey found that Kipepeo farmers earn more money from butterflies than from mangoes, cashews and coconut products­­their main cash crops­­combined.

At first, however, locals considered the idea more like a joke than a jackpot. "We thought they were kidding," recalls Samson, "because sending butterflies to America, who could imagine that?" The local Giriama language doesn´t even have names for the different butterflies of the forest.

"Here in Africa, there´s no importance in butterflies," explains butterfly farmer Priscilla Kiti. "We don´t touch them normally." But Kiti is now a believer, even ignoring the traditional wisdom that pollen carried by butterflies ruins fingernails. "I can hold even 10 butterflies in my hand," she chuckles. Today both she and Samson rattle off Latin names for their breeding stock as though they had degrees in entomology.

Before Kipepeo, mixing farming with the forest was a recipe for nothing but grief. Those who plant corn, cassava and other crops within sight of Arabuko­Sokoke typically lose more than half of their harvest to baboons and elephants. In a sandy plot pocked with footprints the size of dinnerplates, Samson surveys what remains of a field planted by his parents. Two weeks before, forest elephants spent a night stripping the field of what would have been a six­month supply of cowpeas for Samson´s family. "This big area from that mango tree up to that tree, all of this place was full of cowpeas," he sighs. "Now what remains are the stems and leaves."

With such unfriendly wildlife ambassadors about, the newfound devotion that butterfly farmers feel toward the forest seems all the more remarkable. Today, only 16 percent of Arabuko­Sokoke´s closest neighbors want part of the forest surrendered to farmland. Sitting in the shade of a coconut palm, while her five children roast cashews over an open fire, Kiti explains that she now sees the forest as more than just a launching pad from which baboons mount raids on her crops. "We used to wish the forest would go away," she says, "but these days we earn our living mostly in butterfly farming, so if they cut the forest, things are going to be very difficult."

Surveying opinions is easier than measuring changes on the ground, but some observers believe the butterfly farmers are beginning to drive away poachers. Eight years ago, recalls Francis Mang´ee, the forester in charge of the eastern section of Arabuko-Sokoke, "You could not finish a day without arresting somebody, but nowadays you might even finish a month without arresting anyone."

Pointing to a map on the wall of his office, Mang´ee explains that as butterfly farmers report suspicious activities to the authorities, poachers are forced into remoter parts of the reserve. "Kipepeo farmers are operating in that area," he says, fingering the southeast corner of the forest, "so I know that place is safe." Protection should improve as Kipepeo recruits new farmers from the western side of the forest, thus surrounding the unfenced reserve with a human cordon of goodwill.

That´s good news for wildlife, including Africa´s smallest owl. As the last of the morning stars fade through gaps in the forest canopy, bird guide David Ngala puckers up and intones a pulsing, hollow whistle. Minutes later, a faint reply suggests that a pair of Sokoke scops owls have roosted in the distance. The quiet birds are actually snuggled on a branch just a few trees away, where Ngala spots them. A shy, beanie­baby­sized species, the endangered owl was only discovered in the 1960s, and so far, researchers have never even seen its nest. Those intent on saving it hope its survival does not depend on nesting holes in muhuhu trees: Long before butterfly farming gained a foothold, most had been felled by poachers for carving wood.

If the forest denizens have found a friend in the Kipepeo farmers, illegal operators have found an enemy. "They don´t like butterfly farmers­­we are like askaris to them," says Kiti, using the Swahili word for soldiers or guards. Her butterfly traps have been cut down in the forest, and she once even overheard someone in a shop say that butterfly farmers would have to be killed. "They said so because they saw me," she believes, "and they knew that I was going to hear what they were saying."

The butterfly farmers´ defense of Arabuko­Sokoke has not made them popular with landless peasants agitating for forest land, either. In 1994, just as Kipepeo was starting production, thousands of Kenyans from the coastal region invaded the forest and began to cut down trees to demarcate plots. The local councillors who led them had heard President Moi backing a settlement scheme in the forest and had grown impatient waiting for the property to be deproclaimed. (A forest department official says that when Moi offered vague support for a settlement proposal, he had no idea the land was in a protected forest.)

The squatters were removed, but a debate ensued within the government over whether to let the settlement proceed in an organized fashion. Groups of butterfly farmers delivered protest letters to the district commissioner and a presidential commission, arguing for the sanctity of the forest. For the first time, Arabuko­Sokoke was being defended not by Nairobi scientists or foreign conservationists, but by the local people themselves. The government decided in favor of the forest.

The future of Arabuko­Sokoke is not yet assured. The squatters´ leaders vow to keep up the pressure for settlement land. And friends of the forest complain that in certain areas, poachers operate freely in collusion with corrupt forest officials. The Department of Forestry has already transferred one suspected forester and launched an investigation, but many believe that the foresters and wardens still do not all have sufficient will­­or resources­­to end poaching. "You cannot hope to rely totally on community goodwill in protecting a forest," warns Gordon. "There´s always got to be some element of policing. Certainly we need that at Sokoke."

The Kipepeo Project must also take care that its own activities don´t deplete forest resources. With that in mind, Washington Ayiemba, manager of the project, walks along a sandy track in the forest, a notebook in one hand and a sweep net in the other. "That one is Papilio dardanus," he observes as he whisks the black­and­ yellow butterfly into his net. "They´re called the ´flying handkerchief´ because if you throw a handkerchief at them, they will dart for it, challenging it as a fellow butterfly."

Ayiemba records and releases his capture before moving on to a mesh trap baited with rotting bananas in palm wine. There, he finds three species of fruit­feeding charaxes butterflies, one in shades of blue that call to mind the nearby Indian Ocean. Despite their dandy looks, the charaxes are the gladiators of the butterfly world, with serrated forewings that they use to bully other butterflies off a deliciously rotten piece of fruit or fresh carnivore dung. In several years of monitoring, Ayiemba says, he has found no sign that Kipepeo farmers are harming butterfly populations.

But could they boom where they don´t belong, such as in the United States? Thousands of live chrysalises enter the country every week to supply butterfly houses. The U.S. government is mindful of the risks of this trade, knowing the havoc wreaked by other foreign insects, such as the gypsy moth. The Department of Agriculture must approve all building plans for live butterfly displays­­more are going up each year­­ insisting on double doors and fans that blow butterflies away from exits, for example. In the unlikely event of an escape, the chances that an imported butterfly from the Tropics could survive U.S. weather and find a suitable host plant are remote.

Without the American dollars and British pounds from butterfly houses, Samson and Kiti would have little reason to count the forest as their friend. But fortunately, in the effort to give Kenyans a financial stake in Arabuko­Sokoke, some people have not lost sight of the fact that uplifting the poor and conserving nature are virtues in their own right, whether or not a connection can be made between the two.

For Gordon, one of the signs that the project is working is measured not in species saved but in the simple fact that long­suffering farmers are earning a living. And Daniel Mundu, a village elder who has lived 40 years in the shadow of the forest, testifies that Arabuko­Sokoke must be saved, not for the shillings he earns from butterflies, but for something simpler and purer. "The forest is here," he states. "We found the forest here, and we have to leave it here for our children´s generation."

As a youngster, roving editor Don Boroughs was an avid collector of butterflies and other insects near his home in Michigan.

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