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Africa Geographic Travel

South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland have 657 species of butterfly. Butterflies are popular and attractive insects and therefore have a large following amongst the general public. These flying jewels are important sentinels for conservation. They are sensitive monitors for ecosystem health; if the butterflies are good, then everything else must be doing okay too.

Beautiful Tiger moth. © Eward Doubell
Beautiful tiger moth. © Eward Doubell

They also play a role in the vital ecosystem service of pollination (e.g. the Table Mountain Beauty Aeropetes tulbaghia is the only known pollinator of Disa uniflora, the Red Disa orchid).

Last year in May, a book was published called Conservation Assessment of Butterflies of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland: Red List and Atlas. This was the first butterfly atlas for the region. This means that maps were based on actual records, rather than the subjective judgements which produced the maps in the earlier field guides.

The atlas was a stepping stone. It made us realise how incomplete our knowledge of distribution really is. And of course, the combined impact of climate change, and landscapes being modified by agriculture, de- and afforestation, mining and urbanisation, butterfly distributions are changing too. So there is an ongoing need to keep our knowledge of distributions

To meet this need we launched LepiMAP in October of last year. LepiMAP is a partnership between the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa (LepSoc) and the Animal Demography Unit (ADU), University of Cape Town.

LepiMAP is hosting a Spring LepiBASH from 18–26 October. LepiBASH is the new and exciting LepiMAP mini-project which aims to increase awareness of LepiMAP, and boost the number of participants and the rate at which data pours into the LepiMAP database.

Splendrous Hornet moth. © Luelle Watts
Splendrous hornet moth. © Luelle Watts

To participate all you need do is to point your camera at butterflies and moths and upload the photos, plus date and place into the LepiMAP database. Anybody, anywhere in Africa can participate! You upload your photos at the ADU’s Virtual Museum website. Once you have found your way round the website, you can easily find areas for which there is no data in LepiMAP and collect as many LepiMAP records for them as possible. Help fill the gaps.

LepiMAP includes moths as well as butterflies, and focuses on the whole of Africa! Experiment with hanging a sheet out at night with a bright light played on it for an hour or two and see how many different species of moths you kind find and photograph. Submit those photos to LepiMAP.

You might have a big collection of butterfly and moth photographs already. If so, an armchair way to participate in LepiBASH is to upload the records into the Virtual Museum database.

Get your butterflying and mothing on!

Blue-spotted charaxes / Bosprins-dubbelstert. © Rob Dickinson
Blue-spotted charaxes / Bosprins-dubbelstert. © Rob Dickinson


1. LepiMAP’s ultimate goal is the conservation of wild populations of butterflies and moths and their habitats in Africa. This entails educating and encouraging people to observe, appreciate and understand the needs of living insects. LepiMAP is a section of the Animal Demography Unit’s Virtual Museum and is a database containing photographic records of live butterflies and moths, together with the dates and places of occurrence. The Virtual Museum, to a large extent, provides a way of side-stepping the need to collect butterflies and moths. The Animal Demography Unit supports the concept that no Lepidoptera, or any other animal, should be killed or collected casually, unthinkingly and without good reason. Therefore photography for Virtual Museum purposes needs to be undertaken in such a way that it does not harm populations of moths and/or butterflies.

2. Photography of Lepidoptera can become a captivating hobby in its own right but the priority must always be the welfare of insect populations and their habitat. Photographers should take care to minimise disturbance or damage to habitats. The removal of insects from the wild for photographic purposes is to be avoided but, if essential, the subsequent release must be at the original place of capture. Photographers must ensure that they comply with any special regulations at a site, especially if it falls within a protected area.

3. Special care needs to be taken when releasing moths photographed after being attracted to lights. They must be released immediately after photography, and well before dawn on the same night in which they were attracted to lights. Lights must only be on for the period during which there is intention to observe the moths attracted to the light. Surfaces to which moths are attracted should be checked regularly. Lights need to be switched off several hours before dawn to allow moths to dissipate and find hiding places for the day. Moths left in conspicuous places in daylight frequently fall prey to birds.

4. There are 657 species of butterflies in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Some of the species have subspecies, Red Listing was done for the butterflies at this level. Thus 794 taxa were assessed. Three are “Extinct”, 14 are “Critically Endangered” and three of these 14 are considered to be “Possibly Extinct.” A fourth butterfly, the Waterberg Copper (Eriksonia edgei), which was considered possibly extinct until March last year was rediscovered in the Waterberg, in Limpopo, after more than 20 years, Another 27 taxa are classified as “Endangered,” 19 as “Vulnerable,” five as “Near Threatened” and nine as “Data Deficient.” Half of South Africa’s butterflies are endemic to the region, i.e. they occur nowhere else. Most of our threatened butterflies occur in the grassland and fynbos biomes. The main threats to our butterflies are habitat degradation (e.g. invasive alien vegetation) and habitat loss (e.g. urbanisation and agriculture).

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The Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town believes that the best way to achieve biodiversity conservation is through enabling conservation decisions to be based on solid quantitative evidence. The mission of the Animal Demography Unit is to contribute to the understanding of animal populations, especially population dynamics, and thus provide input to their conservation. We achieve this through mass citizen science participation projects, long-term monitoring, innovative statistical modelling and population-level interpretation of results. Visit our Facebook page to keep up to date with all the latest news.

Africa Geographic Travel
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