Kilifi,KENYA: For years, Dickson Mbogo’s main source of income was the illegal cutting down of trees at the once vast Arabuko Sokoke forest, which would mostly end up in a Tom and Jerry chase like game with the Kenya Forest Service officers.
‘When you are jobless, living near a forest and not empowered with knowledge on how you can make money from the forest without destroying it, you will definitely end up engaging in activities that cause destruction.” says Dickson.
This was his lifestyle until his turning point in the year 2006.
Dickson who now discourages illegal logging, says his fortunes changed since he ditched the logging business.
In a good week, he can make up to sh. 10,000 during the high season which runs from April to September.
“I am paying school fees for my sisters, one in nursing school and another one in high school.” Dickson explains.
Dickson is not alone.
Close to 800 residents living near the Arabuko Sokoke forest now rely on butterfly farming as their major source of income.
The farmers are coordinated by the Kipepeo butterfly project which began as an experimental project in 1993 and is rated as the most successful, after similar projects in South Africa and Tanzania failed.
According to the Project Manager Hussein Aden, the project was started to help communities living around the forest generate income and instill in them the importance of conserving the forest.
The Arabuko Sokoke Forest which once stretched from Somalia to Mozambique has over the years been destroyed to pave way for farming and human settlement.
With a remaining cover of approximately 420 square kilometres, the forest is home to 30% of the butterfly species found in Kenya like the Redspot Diadem and the Emperor Swallowtail.
With strict laws, safeguarding the access of forests, the butterfly farmers are licensed by the Kenya Wildlife Service.
How the project works
The farmers net the butterflies using a trap laced with a traditional brew. They then lock them in netted cages which are made of poles, strings and wire mesh where the butterflies are fed on plants and fruits.
Research has shown that a butterfly can lay upto 2000 eggs during its lifetime.
Once the eggs have hatched into caterpillars, they are transferred into a nursery where they are fed with plants.
It is at the pupae stage that the Kipepeo butterfly project purchases the butterflies.
The pricing of the butterflies varies with species like the Flame-bordered Emperor,Redspot Diadem and Emperor Swallowtail fetching a higher price.
At the centre, the pupae are sorted and examined for diseases before they packed in custom made Styrofoam sheets in preparation for export.
According to Aden, the butterflies are exported to a wholesaler in the United Kingdom who re-exports the butterflies to Spain,Ukraine,Germany ,Romania,Italy and Netherlands while another of their customer is a butterfly exhibition owner in Turkey.
Butterflies have a lifespan of an average of 6 days and the butterflies are mostly used in exhibitions and to aid research.
The butterfly markets days are Mondays and Fridays and farmers can make between sh 500 and sh 10,000 a week.
The project has not only helped fight illegal logging but also helped in fighting off unlicensed hunters in the forest according to the Arabuko Sokoke Kenya Wildlife Service senior Warden, Abdi Noor.
“We are closely working with the butterfly farmers and they have been very helpful because when they find the illegal snare traps they help us track them” Noor says.
However, despite the success of the project, Aden says more enforcing needs to be done to conserve Kenyan forests as many still secretly engage in the practice.
In February, the government issued a 90 logging ban and fired 10 Kenya Forest Service officers who were found guilty of various illegal forest activities.
Among those who were sent home, 3 of them were from the Arabuko Sokoke forest management.
The Arabuko Sokoke forest ecosystem conservator office has since been moved from Kilifi town to Gede.