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The butterfly effect
The farmers of Pete village have gathered together with their pockets full of insects. For most people this would usually be a sign that a pest inspection is long overdue. But for the farmers of Pete village, a pocket full of insect pupae means a good harvest. They are after all, farming butterflies.
Just 2km south of Jozani National Forest, the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre is a community-run project giving a unique wildlife experience. Our guide Abdullah leads us off the beaten tourist track and along a dirt trail; among five rangers who care for the centre, Abdullah is an expert on the insects’ life cycles and unique biology. He opens a beaded curtain and ushers us into the 5000 square foot tropical garden.
We take careful steps along the path, watching for rogue butterflies on the floor beneath. Within the butterfly garden, visitors can observe pupae hatching and interact with them in the forest greenhouse. Of the fifty species of large butterfly native to the Jozani forest area, the centre currently hosts 16 in its enclosure, all unique to Tanzania. These include the ‘Flying Handkerchief’, a manic flyer as unpredictable and hard to catch as a daladala (local bus) swerving in peak hour traffic.
"Normally Zanzibar’s farmers were killing butterflies and we imported them from the mainland farmers," Abdullah says, telling us that farmers kill them because the caterpillars destroy vegetable crops. I can see evidence of their huge appetites on the passion fruit vines above. The farmers, he says, "needed to be educated about the value of their butterflies". This is where the butterfly centre project came in.
Important indicators of an ecological system, butterflies represent the health of their habitats. If the plant and insect life is healthy, butterfly populations are stable and numerous. However as agriculture destroys native forest, leaving less flowering plants and attracting more pests, there are fewer butterflies.
Pete’s villagers now earn an income from the preservation of these insects and their habitat. Trained farmers collect butterfly eggs from the forest and raise the caterpillars in captivity where they feed on host plants until they form into pupae. It’s at this stage that they are sold to the centre, who raise the pupae till they hatch as fully formed butterflies for display in the garden. Pupae vary in price depending on the species, some of which are rarer and more difficult to grow. The exchange is a chance for villagers to see the forest in a new light - not as wasted agricultural land but a source of ecological and financial wealth for them and their families.
Centre facilitator Alistair Mould stresses the importance of maintaining a focus on sustainable ecology. "In community development, we are encouraging farmers not to do what is easiest; because that is most often the most detrimental to habitat," he says, telling us that farmers are taught to harvest a variety of species and grow their preferred food plant instead of taking it from the forest. Pupae are also kept by farmers so that they don’t have to harvest eggs from the forest again, depleting wild populations. "The ZBC is a community initiative that wants to see villagers earn a living from a preserved ecology," he says.
Similar projects have been successful in Asia and mainland Africa - what makes the centre so unique is its intimate setting. From management down to the maintenance of the garden enclosure, the people of Pete are involved in every aspect of the centre's own cycle. New life is constantly on display at the centre, making it a perfect symbol for the village and the island itself.
So what’s the next stage? "As well as building a nursery to grow host plants, we will start selling our flowers to other businesses on the island," Abdullah says. The centre is also looking at the possibility of exporting pupae to zoos and other butterfly exhibits in mainland Africa, Europe and America. For now, Zanzibar’s butterflies fly exclusively over home soil.
As we walk out of the garden we pass the pupae box; a small mesh covered cage which holds the ‘sleeping beauties’ as they prepare to emerge from their chrysalises. One of the butterflies has just hatched and I ask Abdullah why it isn’t flying. "It needs to dry its wings and wait for the blood to move into them - then it will be strong enough to fly," he says, pointing to the paper-thin wings, which quiver slightly. Suddenly they burst open, revealing a blazing orange tapestry and the butterfly floats out into the colorful frenzy above.
From 01/03/2011 Children under 5 go for free. Above the age of 12, visitors are charged the adult entry fee