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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Grab a friend and head to the Florida Museum of Natural History where African butterflies are making a transatlantic debut in the Butterfly Rainforest. An added bonus? Your entry ticket helps conserve coastal forestland in Kenya.

The Florida Museum is testing the first arrivals from Africa now as it prepares for the “Inside Africa” traveling exhibit, which opens March 15 and runs through Sept. 7.

“This is the first time we’ve displayed African species, so we’re experimenting to see which ones will best survive the long journey and thrive in our Butterfly Rainforest environment,” said Tom Emmel, director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.

Ticket sales will help support the Kipepeo Butterfly Project, a community-based enterprise that supports the livelihoods of people living around Arabuko Sokoke forest in coastal Kenya, East Africa. Since its establishment in 1993, the Kipepeo Butterfly Project has been teaching residents sustainable butterfly farming techniques and encouraging them to utilize wildlife protection practices.

Emmel says butterfly farming is a tried and true method for conserving forestland and butterfly habitat while also helping raise the standard of living in communities directly dependent on natural resources.

“Butterfly farming is a conservation mechanism that’s proven highly successful in tropical countries like Costa Rica, Columbia, Peru, El Salvador and Guyana,” Emmel said. “They can have a huge impact on the local economy. Worldwide, about $1 billion is spent annually on butterfly stock and related artwork. The trend is starting to catch on in Africa, which has only a handful of butterfly farms.

“It was a conscious decision for us to purchase the species directly from Africa, putting as much money as we could into supporting Kipepeo,” Emmel said.

Kipepeo Butterfly Project Assistant Manager Maria Fungomeli said the program has transformed the attitudes of local people toward Kenya’s Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

“These communities living around the forest had long suffered from crop raids from elephants and baboons from the forest, thus they had a very negative perception of the forest,” said Fungomeli, a research scientist with The National Museums of Kenya, via e-mail. “The community wanted to own the forest and clear it for settlement and shelter. They wanted it for their own use.

“Since butterfly farming started in 1993, this perception has changed. A more recent survey shows that at the start, only 15 percent of the community living in villages directly adjacent to the forest supported conservation, and now this has been raised to 85 percent,” Fungomeli said.

The National Museums of Kenya conceived Kipepeo as a method for local communities to practice sustainable development and encourage forest conservation. Today, about 800 farmers are registered with the project and actively raise butterfly pupae. Registered farmers receive 65 percent of the pupae sales.

“In the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, the communities are allowed to use the forest for butterfly farming, beekeeping, fuel wood, water and medicinal plants,” Fungomeli said.

Farmers collect butterfly eggs and host plants from the forest and move them to protected areas where they can more closely monitor them. Using about one-quarter to one-half of an acre, they grow the host plants and raise the butterflies. It’s important for them to have wild butterfly stock and wild host plant stock available to replenish their colonies. This need also provides an incentive for farmers to keep the forest healthy and intact.

One Kipepeo butterfly farmer, James Thoya, said before being trained to raise butterflies, he used the forest only to illegally cut poles to build his house. In addition to raising butterfly pupae, the Kipepeo project taught him beekeeping and how to plant a tree nursery on his land.

“Since being trained to rear butterfly pupae, I see great value of the forest through butterfly farming and I now participate in conserving it,” Thoya said. “The money earned through butterfly farming has enabled me to buy food for my family and pay school fees for my son, now in high school. Currently I am not employed other than farming and my highest income from farming comes from raising butterfly pupae.”

The new African butterflies in the Butterfly Rainforest complement the upcoming “Inside Africa” temporary exhibit, on display at the Florida Museum from March 15-Sept. 7. Through hands-on activities, three-dimensional settings, multimedia presentations and an exceptional collection of African artifacts, the exhibit demonstrates the enormous diversity of African geography, societies and political systems, and also helps visitors understand more fully the impact of slavery and freedom movements in Africa and the Americas.

Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for Florida residents, seniors age 62 and above and students, and $4 for children ages 3-12. Combo rates for both the “Inside Africa” exhibit and Butterfly Rainforest also are available. For more information, visit

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Source: Tom Emmel, 352-273-2005;
Writer: DeLene Beeland
Media contact: Paul Ramey, 352-273-2054,