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On a wing and a prayer: the forests of the Eastern Arc mountains of Kenya and Tanzania have been compared to the Galapagos Islands because of their extraordinarily; high concentrations of endemic species. But, like so many such biodiversity hotspots, they are under threat from human activities such as agriculture and logging. In one area in northern Tanzania, however, an unlikely saviour has emerged: the humble butterfly.

Hamadi Thabit Magoha readies himself. In his aunt's garden in Mlola village, northern Tanzania, he stands perfectly still, legs apart, poised for action. Clasped between his hands is a metre-long wooden pole; on its end is a round metal hoop, from which hangs a net of green mesh. Only Magoha's eyes move as he watches his prey flit in and out of the afternoon sunlight.

Then, with a flash of green, a flick, a swish and a swipe, it's all over. With a cry of satisfaction, Magoha returns to his seat under a banana tree and begins to unravel his net. He reaches inside the folds and carefully retrieves a large black butterfly with striking aqua-blue markings on its wings. 'This is Papilio nireus,' he says. 'Isn't she beautiful?'

Not only is she beautiful, but she's immensely valuable. Mahoga is one of more than 400 farmers in Tanzania's East Usambara mountains who participate in the Amani Butterfly Project, a fantastically simple, yet remarkably effective development initiative that's not only helping to alleviate poverty in the area but also contributing to the protection of one of East Africa's most valuable tracts of rainforest.

Species rich

The East Usambaras form part of the Eastern Arc mountains, a series of 13 ranges that rise dramatically out of the East African savannah, from Kenya's Taita Hills in the north to Tanzania's Udzungwa and Mahenge ranges in the south. Having been geographically isolated for millions of years, these forested islands are incredibly rich in biodiversity, and today have one of the world's highest concentrations of endemic species (see The Eastern Arcs: an African Galapagos).

With some of the region's most extensive forest cover, the East Usambaras range is one of the most ecologically significant in the Eastern Arc. In just 413 square kilometres of forest, there are 340 species of bird, around 400 of butterfly, almost 30 of reptile and 43 of frog. Together with the West Usambara mountains, the East Usambaras contain more than 2,850 plant species, and more types of tree than Europe and North America combined.

Like many of the world's most biodiverse areas, the Eastern Arc forests have become increasingly degraded during recent decades as local populations have grown, particularly from clearance for agriculture and timber cutting. A study published earlier this year into the biological significance of the ranges concluded that the Eastern Arc 'is amongst [sic] the most threatened regions of global biodiversity significance and one where the risk to fauna and flora is intense and increasing'.

In the past few years, however, conservationists working in the East Usambaras have been given some cause for hope. The growth of butterfly farming around Amani Nature Reserve has led to a decline of degrading activities and given local communities the incentive to begin protecting the forest themselves.

Established in 2001 by the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, the project breeds more than 30 species of butterfly for sale to exhibitors in Europe and North America. The first three years of trading have seen remarkable growth: total sales increased by 200 per cent from TSh20million (7,970 [pounds sterling]) in 2004 to TSh60million in 2006.

All a farmer needs to get started is a licence from the local authorities, some netting and a few plastic containers. With permission to catch a few males and females from the forest, he or she can then start breeding and collecting eggs. These take around five days to hatch into caterpillars and another four weeks to turn into pupae.

It's at this point that they are sold, says Mahoga. 'We sell most of the pupae to the project buyer, who comes to the village twice a week,' he explains. 'But we also keep a few females to produce more eggs, and exchange males with other farmers to avoid inbreeding.'

Depending on the species, a pupa is worth between US$1 and US$2.50. Of this, 65 per cent goes to the farmers and 28 per cent to the project's costs. With some farmers selling as many as 100 pupae a month, this represents good money in an area where the average annual income is less than US$400.

The impact on families and communities is clear. Mahoga's aunt, Mariam Salehe, tells me that since she began farming butterflies in 2004, her monthly income has increased by a quarter, and she has been able to send her youngest daughter to secondary school. 'I couldn't afford to send any of my other seven children to secondary school' she says. 'But I am very happy that our butterflies are helping my last child to get a better education.'

Increasing indepenence

To date, the project has worked with around 400 people in six villages, and there are plans to extend it to another four villages. Its director, Amiri Saidi, explains that around 65 per cent of those involved are women. 'One of the aims of the project has always been to work with women,' he says. 'Traditionally, women have no property or business of their own, and the butterfly farming gives them some kind of income for themselves and a degree of independence.'

However, it isn't just the farmers who benefit. The final seven per cent of revenue from sales goes into a community development fund that has so far been used for the construction of three school buildings.

As well as improving families' incomes, the project has helped to change local peoples' attitudes towards the forest itself. 'Because the forest plays a fundamental role in their business-by providing them with the raw materials they need to get started--the farmers are now taking steps to protect it,' says the project's technical advisor, Theron Morgan-Brown. 'Butterfly farmers are forming environmental committees, planting trees, setting up community forest reserves and actively discouraging cutting.'

In Mlola village, Mahele says: 'We go into the forest two or three times a week to take care of it. If there is a fire we go and put it out. No-one would have bothered to do any of this before we started farming butterflies.'

With both business and conservation booming in the East Usambaras, there are plans to develop more butterfly projects in other parts of the Eastern Arcs, notably on Udzungwa, Uluguru and Nguru mountains, all of which have their own endemic species. 'There is a big market for butterflies in Europe and North America,' says Saidi. 'We in Tanzania are in the fortunate position of being able to supply it with some of our rare, endemic species. I hope that we can continue to take advantage of this situation to improve peoples' lives and, in doing so, help to protect our biodiversity.'

The Eastern Arcs: an African Galapagos

The Eastern Arc mountains are home to an extraordinarily high concentration of endemic species and were among the first of the so-called Biodiversity Hotspots to be identified by US NGO Conservation International. They are often compared to the Galapagos Islands. not only because of the high level of endemism, but because of the manner in which it has arisen.

The oldest mountains in East Africa, the Eastern Arcs formed at least 100 million years ago along a fault to the east of the more recent Rift Valley. They were cloaked in rainforest by at least 30 million years ago, and as most of Africa's forests subsequently retreated, those covering the Eastern Arcs continued to flourish, thanks to a continuous westerly wind blowing moisture in from the Indian Ocean.

This fragmentation eventually created islands of forested mountains that today rise dramatically out of the savannah plains. And it's this gradual process of separation that created this evolutionary hotspot, allowing species to evolve in isolation.

Today, the 13 ranges of the Eastern Arcs support less than 3,500 square kilometres of forest. But that relatively small area contains 196 endemic vertebrate species, more than 800 endemic vascular plants--ten per cent of them trees--and hundreds of endemic invertebrates, among them, 43 species of butterfly.

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Comment:On a wing and a prayer: the forests of the Eastern Arc mountains of Kenya and Tanzania have been compared to the Galapagos Islands because of their extraordinarily; high concentrations of endemic species.
Author:Furniss, Charlie
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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