Mombasa Butterfly House: tourist attraction and community marketplace

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The Mombasa Butterfly House is now fully operational. It offers visitors an unforgettable experience of seeing colourful tropical butterflies at close range. It also provides an opportunity to learn more about biodiversity and its importance to local communities.

Located within the grounds of Fort Jesus, a famous historical National Monument, the Mombasa Butterfly House has on display butterflies that have been purchased from community groups living adjacent to key coastal forests, including the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest.  The communities breed the butterflies as an alternative to forest use. Proceeds from ticket sales at the butterfly house directly support local livelihoods.

The butterfly house is built in an attractive open style that features a butterfly flight cage and conservation exhibition. Its greenery and flowers exude a sense of tranquility and harmony as it showcases the richness of Kenya’s coastal forests and biodiversity while emphasizing the need to conserve them.

The attractive building and environment is also ideal and available for events such as exhibitions, receptions, photo/film shoots and lectures.

A gift shop at the butterfly house stocks products from community conservation and welfare groups in the region. The products, which include high quality honey, live pupae  and other nature-based items, are sustainably produced in a manner that does not harm the environment. By purchasing items from the gift shop, visitors support conservation by providing a market and alternative livelihoods to these communities.

Farmers living near the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest have been earning income by raising butterflies. The farmers collect a few butterflies from the famous forest. These butterflies lay eggs, and the farmers take over the rearing of the young. The caterpillars that hatch from the butterfly eggs feed on particular forest plants, so farmers collect leafy twigs from the forest to feed the caterpillars, and protect them from predators. The caterpillars feed and grow, feed and grow, and when they are big enough they go into a resting stage, called a pupa.

At this resting stage, the insect is not as voracious as a caterpillar or as delicate as a butterfly. This is the time it can be shipped to zoos and gardens to delight the visitors. A single butterfly pupa can fetch up to Ksh. 90 in the export market, depending on the species.

The Kipepeo project, located in Gede in Kilifi County, buys the pupae from farmers and sends them by airplane to fill the orders. Managing long-distance sales and shipping live insects can be challenging, and sometimes farmers raise more pupae than have been ordered. The surplus pupae now hatch into beautiful butterflies at the Mombasa Butterfly House. The butterfly house is a joint initiative between the National Museums of Kenya and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and it purchases some of the excess pupae produced by farmers in Arabuko-Sokoke and other coastal forests.

The Mombasa Butterfly House currently provides a secure and reliable local market for the butterfly products from the Kipepeo project.  Kipepeo was among projects that were funded through a US$1.2 million grant awarded by USAID in 2003 through Nature Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya. The grant was to support the implementation of Kenya’s first pilot forest co-management initiative at the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The grant also aimed at establishing sustainable nature-based businesses so as to protect the forest from its unsustainable use by economically marginal communities trying to meet their basic needs.

The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is the last large remnant of the coastal forests that once dominated the East African coastline. A vital resource for the local communities, it also forms part of the Eastern African Coastal Forest System, considered among the top 25 biodiversity hot spots on earth. The forest is home to several animal and plants of global conservation importance such as the globally endangered Clarke’s Weaver and Sokoke Scops Owl. It also shelters the threatened Golden-rumped Sengi (elephant-shrew), the Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose and the forest endemic butterfly Charaxes blanda among others.