A Missahoe Metamorphosis

In Focus, May 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

Nyanu Prosper has been passionate about the butterflies of Togo's highlands from an early age, capturing thousands of them since 1982.

The initial attraction was financial - today butterfly display cases sell at about $30 locally and nearly twice that in the capital of Lomé or neighboring Benin and Burkina Faso. "A kid can prepare about nine or 10 a month and with a cost price of $11, that's good business," Prosper said.

But in 1996, Prosper met some French ecologists after his first exhibition of Togolese butterflies in France. “From then on, I realized bit by bit exactly what terrible damage I had been inflicting,” he said.

His knowledge grew when he attended workshops of Association pour la Gestion Intégrée et Durable de l'Environnement (AGIDE or the Association for Integrated and Sustainable Environmental Management) and heard about species extinction and environmental destruction in the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot for the first time.

He learned that the semi-deciduous forest of Missahoe, near Kpalimé in the highlands of southwest Togo, though having protected area status since 1953, has been seriously degraded by alien species. He knew about the bush fires, the poaching and the uncontrolled tree felling but he wasn’t aware that the future health of the forest depends on the complex interaction of all its parts.

Poverty and Lack of Education Hit Hardest

The chief culprit for this collective degradation, according to Kossi Agbalenyo of AGIDE, is the same as in the majority of biodiversity hotspots in the developing world. "From the outset of the project, poverty and the lack of education were identified as the principal causes of forest destruction," Agbalenyo said.

Butterflies are an attractive cash crop, but their plummeting numbers affect the whole ecosystem. The fewer the butterflies, the less effectively they perform their important role as pollinators.

Cocoa and coffee yields have fallen noticeably. Numbers of pest insects, on the other hand, have sharply increased in their absence. Local farmers started using artificial fertilizers and insecticides to compensate but resistance developed quickly and led to the use of even higher levels of chemicals now killing butterflies, both directly and indirectly, by degrading their habitats.

However, although many of the butterfly species have become rare none were yet extinct. Since 1998, Prosper has been able to turn his considerable knowledge toward conservation. "It is my greatest pleasure to use these hands which have killed so many butterflies to give life to others."

NGOs, Government, and Researchers Work Together

As the village secretary for the local branch of the Committee for the Protection and Management of the Missahoe Forest (CLGPM), he has worked closely with AGIDE in carrying out an inventory of local butterfly species, their lifecycles and habitats. Over 164 species have so far been recorded and although it is still too early to say whether any of them are endemic to the Missahoe Forest, there is a strong likelihood that is the case.

The inventory forms part of a larger project recently completed with the help of a $9,800 grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) that included creation of a sustainable development plan for the 1,500-hectare protected area and an environmental education program for the 11 villages in the vicinity. Other partners included the Ministry of Water and Forests and researchers from the University of Lomé who Prosper was able to supervise in the field.

Representatives from each village were invited to attend Q & A workshops that combined teaching about basic environmental concepts, legislation, national conservation strategy, local ecology and the importance of the butterflies for the future economic health of the area. The questions asked also provided an important opportunity for local men and women to contribute to discussions about how they saw the future.

It was a first for women to be included in such debates in the region and despite sessions being shortened - it was insisted they return home at the end of each day as it is unusual for married women to associate freely with men - their contributions were particularly welcome. As the work of gathering wood for making charcoal generally falls to women, they are a particularly important audience to engage in environmental outreach work.

The village of Kouma Tokpli has since appointed Jeanne Gametti as the first female president of the CLGPM and training sessions for women on how to cultivate mushrooms – one of the key sources of protein in the area - have also begun in a related AGIDE project.

The sustainable development plan included recommendations on curbing the use of agricultural chemicals, promoting agroforestry techniques, reducing the number of butterflies being taken in the wild, protecting their habitats, and raising butterflies in captivity. A butterfly sanctuary has already been built for this purpose, as has an exhibition room.

The extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna in the area - its steep terrain and many deep ravines have offered protection from hunters to larger fauna including the globally threatened waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) - together with its rich cultural and archeological heritage also make it a prime destination for ecotourists.

Numbers for the village of Kouma Konda are currently 20 visitors per day June to August and November to December and 10 per day the rest of the year. There are hopes to draw more in as long as Togo’s turbulent political situation remains stable.

Plans to encourage more tourists include nature trails, anthropological and cultural trails, and safaris while a code of sustainable conduct has been developed for all businesses operating in the area. Another possibility is archeological digs that would rescue remains from the dangers posed by climate and passing wild animals as well as theft by collectors, while providing revenue for the area. Digs could even lead to historical solutions for the area's management and protection.

There is a need, too, for more effective legislation, better law enforcement, and closer collaboration between local government and communities, but as Agbalenyo of AGIDE pointed out, responsibility for the area lies with all concerned – those who live there, those who visit and those who govern.

"Our tourist industry can save our heritage, creating wealth for all of us, or it can destroy it. The choice is ours," he said.