Butterflies are earning their keep in Kenya. In a country plagued with tropical forest destruction on the coast of eastern Africa, the Kipepeo ("butterfly" in Swahili) Project -- started in 1993 through a United Nations Development Program grant -- provides an incentive to preserve the Kenyan forest.
The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, which once stretched from Mozambique to Somalia, has been reduced to a 160 square mile "patch" on the east coast of Kenya. Like many forests around the world, has fallen prey to classical economics: the perceived need to clear cut as farmers seek out new crop land and communities struggle to meet their increased demand for firewood. From the farmer's perspective, cutting the forest also eliminates the crop-raiding "pests" such as baboons and elephants.
Butterflies have become an important economic component of rainforest preservation in Kenya.
The Kipepeo Project makes it profitable to preserve the forest, however. As conceived by scientist Ian Gordon, it helps local families to sell exotic butterflies from the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest to European and American buyers who pay anywhere from 50 cents to $2.50 per butterfly. The project has two screened-in rooms where a variety of butterflies such as golden-banded foresters, African monarchs and pearl charaxes lay eggs on plant leaves and stems. Families may then collect harvested eggs and raise the caterpillars until pupae formation (though some families collect eggs directly from the forest).
In 1994, butterfly exports garnered an impressive $16,000 for Kenya. While this is nowhere near the money generated through tea and coffee exports, the butterfly earnings have been sufficient to protect the habitat of several endangered species, a trend which project supporters hope to see continue.