Raising butterflies to conserve forests

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful insects on earth. Fluttering their coloured and patterned wings, these charming creatures arouse awe and a sense of harmony wherever they fly. The Taita Hills forests are home to many of these flying beauties. As a matter of fact, there are three butterfly species that are endemic to these forests – found nowhere else on Earth.

Chawia forest is among the three remaining large forest fragments in the Taita Hills. At the fringe of this forest, a group of youth is engaged in butterfly farming, proving that there’s a financial stake in keeping the forest intact. Comprising of 14 members, the Chawia Youth Group rears and sells butterfly pupae as one of its core livelihood activities. What sets this group apart from others is its determination to keep Chawia forest conserved by encouraging the planting of indigenous trees.

“This forest is very important to us because the butterfly species found here are dependent on it and its indigenous trees,” explains Amos Mwamburi, a member of the group.

The group considers conservation of Chawia forest a priority as it is directly linked to their livelihoods. The group has a tree nursery with over 4,000 seedlings, mostly indigenous ones. This year they are planning to plant 1,000 trees as part of their forest restoration initiative. The trees intended for planting are those mostly preferred by butterflies. In addition, each member of group has planted trees in their farms.

To raise butterflies, they start with butterfly eggs, which hatch into tiny caterpillars. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of certain forest trees. They grow and grow. When they are big enough, the caterpillars turn into pupae. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a. butterfly. After a few days or weeks, the adult butterfly will hatch from the pupa.

More than 25 types of butterflies inhabit Chawia forest, including Cymothoe teita and Papilio desmondi teita, a subspecies of Desmond’s Green-banded Swallowtail. These two butterflies are endemic to Taita Hills forests. Some species of swallowtails and pansies can also be found in Chawia forest.

According to Mwamburi, on average the group sells around 200 butterfly pupae per month, translating to Ksh.11,000. The pupae are either sold to Kipepeo Centre in Gede near Malindi or to brokers, depending on the butterfly type. The pupae are in turn exported abroad for live exhibits. Kenya has over 800 butterfly species and is ranked among the world’s leading producers of pupae.

“One good thing about butterflies is that they lay many eggs. A single butterfly can lay up to 150-200 eggs, and if these manage to reach the pupae stage, we are talking of over 100 pupae from just one butterfly,” says Mwamburi.

Although the group’s members rear two of the Taita endemic butterflies, Mwamburi is quick to point out that they do not sell their pupae.

“We do not sell the Papilio desmondi teita and Cymothoe teita pupae. We release adults of these two butterfly subspecies into the wild to increase their numbers,” he says.

Butterfly farming has enabled Mwamburi and his colleagues to not only earn a livelihood but also to actively advocate for conservation of Chawia forest.

“We carry out awareness activities around here, where we encourage community members to plant indigenous trees in their farms. People are now beginning to appreciate the importance of conserving our forests which also serve as sources of water. We stand to lose a lot if these forests are destroyed,” he adds.

Like the other surviving indigenous cloud forests of Taita Hills, Chawia has suffered substantial vegetation loss and degradation over the years. Currently, only about 86 ha of the original Chawia forest remains.

The Taita Hills comprise two main mountain massifs, Mbololo and Dawida, rising from the dryland below. The forests that remain on the hilltops are extensively fragmented. Taita Hills forests are part of the Eastern Arc, one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, and are ranked as one of Kenya’s Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). Two Critically Endangered birds are only found in these forest remnants: Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri) and Taita Apalis (Apalis (thoracica) fuscigularis). Severe fragmentation, isolation and decline in quality and extent of indigenous forest cover in Taita Hills pose major threats which affect the breeding success and survival of the two bird species. Helping the community to conserve the forests is therefore vitally important.

Nature Kenya, under the ‘People Partner with Nature’ program, has been supporting communities living adjacent to the Taita Hills forests to engage in income generating activities, such as butterfly farming, beekeeping, eco-tourism, among others, that reduce pressure on the environment. The program is being implemented in partnership with DOF (BirdLife in Denmark) with financial support from DANIDA/ CISU. The overall objective of the program is to ‘reduce the destruction of forested KBAs and contribute to the realization of best participatory forest management practices for the benefit of all.’ This program is also running in Arabuko- Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi county.

Naretunoi Conservancy

In October Nature Kenya’s Sunday Birdwatch spent a delightful day at The Wildlife Foundation on Naretunoi Conservancy – across the Mbagathi River from Hippo Pools in Nairobi National Park. We drove in from Kitengela town, watched birds in the acacia woodland, and ate our picnic in the cool of The Wildlife Foundation centre on the site of the former School for Field Studies.

Naretnoi Conservancy is a group of households who may be farming or herding livestock, but commit to allow mammals to migrate in and out of the National Park. The Wildlife Foundation looks forward to establishing joint studies with museum scientists or Nature Kenya members. In particular, they would like to record the traditional Maasai names of birds. If you are interested, please contact Jacob Tukai <miliatukai@gmail.com>

The bird we ringed is back from North

A single bird can “make the day” for ringers at the ringing exercise at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Nairobi. This might be through re-trapping an exceptionally old bird or having an unusual visitor or even having a migratory bird using the same site over years. Last month the ringing group welcomed back a Common Nightingale which was ringed at the National Museums on March 2018 and was re-caught on 11th November at the same ringing location.

Common Nightingale is an insectivorous species that breeds in forest and scrub in Europe and in Asia as far as north-west China. Assuming this bird didn’t go further south and that it went to breed at its nearest breeding grounds in Turkey, moving in a straight line through the well-known migratory route for passerine birds through Egypt, then it would have travelled a journey of at least 4500 kilometers one way and 4500 km back to Nairobi.

Bird ringing entails tagging of birds using individually numbered metal or plastic ring to the leg. The exercise is done every Tuesday at the museum ground by the Nairobi Ringing Group under the leadership of the Ornithology Section staff through the support of Nature Kenya. The birds are caught using specialized nets called mist nets, measured, ringed and released to continue their life, hoping they will be caught again.

Birds migrate to escape harsh winters in the North, and go back to their breeding grounds in summer. It’s phenomenal for tiny birds like a Common Nightingale to travel thousands of kilometers and find its way back into the same nets months later. As the threats to birds including loss of habitat, climate change, poisoning and illegal trapping increases, we hope our Common Nightingale will be able to make more journeys back and forth. We wish the Nightingale an enjoyable stay here at the tropics.

The Journal of East African Natural History

The first issue of “The Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society” was published in January 1910. It Contained papers on birds, butterflies, plants, fish, elephants, snakes and the Kariandusi deposits. For the next 105 years the Journal, under various titles and different layouts, continued to be published and distributed as a hard-copy journal containing an ever changing, eclectic mix of papers on the biodiversity of the eastern African region.

However, the times are changing, and the publishing world in particular has gone through a drastic reorganisation. Few of us still go to a library to browse through rows and rows of dusty books and journals to find information of interest. Instead, we google and download the papers we are looking for, all done and dusted within a couple of seconds. For a long time, we continued printing the Journal as an exchange resource to stock the joint library of the East Africa Natural History Society and the National Museums of Kenya. However, with many support systems in place to provide scientific information free of charge in those countries that are unable to afford subscriptions to content gatherers, and with Open Access publishing gaining in popularity, the need to exchange hard copy for hard copy has fallen away. Furthermore, the increasing costs associated with printing and postage of the Journal have become a serious burden for a small society such as ours.

Thus, like so many other journals, the management of the Journal of East African Natural History has decided to stop printing hard copies, and from now on to distribute the Journal as an electronic publication only. We will continue our partnership with BioOne, which hosts all issues produced since 1994.

The older issues are Open Access, whereas the more recent ones can only be accessed through subscription. The income that we generate in this way has been a lifeline in the continued production of the Journal. Our content can also be accessed through African Journals Online, and issues from 2016 onwards will be posted there as Open Access, meaning that anyone can download them free of charge. With this mixed model, we hope to continue generating income while we also offer our articles free of charge to institutions and the public that cannot afford a subscription to BioOne. A long printing tradition as the Journal has cannot just simply end without a flourish, and we have therefore decided to make our last printed issue a special one in dedication to the 80th birthday of a great scientist, namely Jonathan Kingdon.

On behalf of the East Africa Natural History Society, the National Museums of Kenya and the editorial committee of the Journal of East African Natural History, I sincerely hope that you will understand and support our decision, and that you will continue to enjoy reading about our amazing biodiversity.

Hinde’s Babblers Breeding in Kabete, Nairobi

Following the initial sightings of Hinde’s Babblers at the University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete Field Station on 26th February (Simon Carter and David Guarnieri) and 8th March 2017 (Nature Kenya Wednesday Morning Bird Walk), marking the first official records of the species in Nairobi, I have been monitoring the birds as I am a student at UoN Upper Kabete Campus. On one occasion while observing the birds with Allan Kipruto (a schoolmate), we got a brief glimpse of what seemed to be a very orange-looking individual in the bushes where the rest of the Babblers (4 adults) were noisily moving around. We suspected it was a juvenile but couldn’t confirm since it quickly went deep into the bush and did not re-emerge.

About 2 weeks later on June 12th, this time on my own, I once again saw this orange-ish babbler in amongst the more regular-looking babblers. Luckily this time I had a camera and quickly snapped a couple of photos before the strange bird dove back into the bush. On taking a closer look at the photos, I was amazed to see that it was indeed a juvenile Hinde’s Babbler! Its head and tail had the same dark grey colour of the adults but it lacked the typical ‘scaling’ patterns and it was orange/rufous on nearly the rest of its body. Its eyes were dark (unlike the red of the adults) and it had a clear yellow gape, a sure sign of its youth. This marks the first ever breeding record of Hinde’s Babbler in Nairobi and the first ever record of a Kenyan endemic bird species breeding in Nairobi. Birds continue to surprise us every day and this unpredictability is what to me keeps bird watching so interesting.