MADANGANI, Kenya (AlertNet) - For nearly 20 years, villagers who live near the Arabuko-Sokoke forest have found an unusual source of income: butterflies.
Local subsistence farmers, trained by the National Museum of Kenya, have made a business out of harvesting butterflies in the forest and then using them to breed pupae on their own farms. The pupae are then exported to exhibits and collectors in Europe and North America.
Museum officials teach villagers about the importance of conservation and sustainable use of forest resources, and also monitor the forest to ensure the harvesting does not endanger wild butterfly population.
But the beneficial “butterfly effect” is under threat from climate change. A prolonged drought affecting most of Kenya has hit butterfly stocks and damaged business, reducing incomes of butterfly farmers by as much as 75 percent.
Maria Fungomeli, a manager at Kipepeo Butterfly Project in the Gede area, south of Malindi on Kenya’s east coast, said that the dry weather has affected the butterfly’s life cycle, causing the population to fall. That has happened despite ongoing efforts by farmers to maintain numbers by releasing female butterflies from cages into the forest.
With more than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres), the Arabuko-Sokoke forest is the largest area of coastal forest remaining in East Africa.
Fungomeli maintains that farming practices are carefully controlled to ensure that production of butterflies is balanced with maintaining a viable wild population.
“We rule out…overharvesting as our monitoring team carries (out a) weekly monitoring exercise,” she said. The monitoring data helps the butterfly farm check the effects of harvesting on the population levels.
Aisha Charo, a resident of Mida village, also is seeing the effect of drought on the forest and its butterflies.
“The forest gives us a source of livelihood and we thought it was permanent. But now we (are) realizing a drop in butterfly population due to drought, which has affected vegetation in the forest,” Charo said.
Every morning and evening, villagers enter the forest with their butterfly catchers but they are returning with smaller harvests or none at all.
“If the situation continues like this, we will lose the butterfly business that has assisted us in educating our children and buying food,” Charo said.
Another butterfly farmer, Moris Dzoro, said, “We used to collect butterflies at the edge of the forest and deliver them to our farms but now things have changed. Villagers are moving deeper into the forest and they interfere with the ecosystem.”
Dzoro worries that these changes will lead to more damaging contact between people and wildlife, and that villagers unable to make a living from butterflies will turn to collecting firewood and producing charcoal for sale to urban areas.
DROP IN EXPORTS
The downturn in butterfly harvest is showing up in export figures. Ali Tandaza, a member of the Butterfly Producers Association, says he has seen an unprecedented drop in exports to Europe and the United States.
“Butterfly farming is facing challenges we have not seen before. We attribute the problem to climate change and its effects,” he said.
The reduction in supply has not yet enabled farmers to charge higher prices to buyers.
“I used to make good earnings from pupae sales but not anymore,” said Khadija Bakari, one butterfly farmer.
Bakari says he previously earned 20,000 Kenyan shillings (about $230) each month from butterfly farming, but his earnings have fallen to just 5,000 shillings (about $60).
Bakari and other villagers have turned back to subsistence farming and are growing drought-resistant crops to make ends meet.
The hoped-for rainy season in March and April did not appear, and Tandaza, of the Butterfly Producers Association, sees a bleak future for butterfly farming.
“If the rain fails then nature-based enterprise might go under,” he said.
Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.