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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ugandan Butterflies Indicate Change

Air Date: Week of
Perpetra Akite loves butterflies. She’s studying what butterflies reveal about development and climate change in Uganda. (Ari Daniel Shapiro)

Pepertra Akite is a scientist who studies butterflies at a university in the capital city of Uganda. Since she began studying butterflies as a girl, the landscape of her homeland has changed radically, for butterflies as well as people. Ari Daniel Shapiro reports from Uganda.


GELLERMAN: The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has enough time.” But in Uganda, butterflies may be running out of time. The east African country has over twelve hundred species. And as Ari Daniel Shapiro reports, the fate of the butterfly, and ours, are inextricably linked.

AKITE: This is a moths…

SHAPIRO: In her laboratory in Kampala, Uganda, Perpetra Akite pulls open one drawer after another in a tiny cabinet.

AKITE: Female is this yellow.

SHAPIRO: Each drawer contains a burst of butterflies or moths, pinned and preserved. Akite is a PhD student, and we’re at Makerere University. She’s a lepidopterist.


AKITE: Very nice group.

SHAPIRO: And she’s curious about what live butterflies and moths can tell her about the changing environment of Uganda.

AKITE: Oh, do you see uh…

SHAPIRO: Here’s one, a white one. Akite takes me outside. A couple of white Pieridae butterflies dip through the air.

AKITE: So many beautiful butterflies.

SHAPIRO: Akite’s love of butterflies emerged early. She was seven, and growing up in a rural area in northern Uganda.

AKITE: My parents were, you know, farmers. We used to go out in the bushes. And I was good at collecting caterpillars. I kept them something like pets, you know.

SHAPIRO: Even as a child, she wasn’t just appreciating. She was studying. Akite would carry the caterpillars home, along with branches from the tree where she found them. The leaves were a guaranteed food supply. And then she’d watch as they made their cocoons, eventually emerging as butterflies.

AKITE: And my dad, much as he wasn’t a biologist, he encouraged me into having these around.

SHAPIRO: It’s a passion that’s stayed with her.

SHAPIRO: She looks for them on campus on days like today. But she also travels to more remote areas in Uganda to find them.

Abisara neavei is a forest butterfly. (Photo: Perpetra Akite)

AKITE: Yes, I do have one little butterfly, which most times I think is my favorite. It’s a forest butterfly, not so common, called Abisara neavei. It’s white and black, with a tail. It’s this one gentle butterfly and it has this agile flight. I have a picture of it in my Bible. Stays with me all the time.

SHAPIRO: But Akite’s butterfly Abisara neavei, she’s not finding as many of them anymore. In fact, she’s not finding as many butterflies period.

AKITE: The things I saw as a child are no more. Lot of them are not there. I put out my traps, and I used to get probably forty, fifty butterflies in a trap in a night. And now you put it almost same time, and you’re getting ten, you’re getting five. You know, it’s almost not there.

SHAPIRO: Butterfly numbers are down throughout Uganda. But there’s more to it than that. The insects have become a lens through which Akite can see the problems of her whole country. They’re indicator species, indicators of a changing landscape and a changing climate. First of all, there’s the issue of deforestation.

AKITE: When you’re looking at forest, you’re trying to see what proportion of the forest-dependent species are there, because if there’s a good forest, you don’t expect open-country species there. But the fact that they’re there, means it can tell you how much of the forest is getting open.

SHAPIRO: Throughout Uganda, butterflies that live in the forests are really suffering. They’re losing out to those that thrive in the open countryside. Akite has found fewer numbers of butterflies nearly everywhere she looks, and newly cut forests encourage different types of butterflies to replace those that were there before. In the last twenty, twenty-five years, entire swaths of wild space in Uganda have disappeared: savannah, woodlands, swamp.

AKITE: There’s too much housing, building which has come up.

SHAPIRO: Not to mention the growth of agriculture and farming. Climate change has also complicated matters. But not in terms of warmer temperatures.

AKITE: It’s always warm and hot and stuff in tropical area. But rainfall is actually how best to measure climatic change. When you talk to the people, they will tell you how much the rainfall patterns have changed. So it’s almost unpredictable.

SHAPIRO: Butterfly life cycles in the tropics are tied to a particular timing and sequence of wet and dry periods. Unseasonal droughts or heavy rainfalls can hit butterflies hard.

AKITE: It’s a sad thing in a way that there’s conflict between human need and conservation. And that conflict is one that is going to take a long time to resolve. (Sighs.) A very long time to resolve.

SHAPIRO: Akite continues to fight for the butterflies. For instance, she informs developers how they can plan, build, and landscape to protect butterflies and their habitats. She’s taking care of her butterflies just like she did when she was seven. Only now, the stakes are a lot higher.
GELLERMAN: Our story about Ugandan butterflies was reported by Ari Daniel Shapiro for the series “One Species at a Time.” It’s produced by Atlantic Public Media, with support from The Encyclopedia of Life.



Check out the Encyclopedia of Life’s One Species at a Time podcast


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