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Tourism enthusiasts like to boast about the ecological vibrancy of Nigeria. Its diverse habitats, rainforests, savannahs and flourishing flora and fauna are often brought up in conversation.
One bragging point, in particular, is that the country has the largest diversity of butterflies in the world. This has been quoted many times before as a “fun fact” about Nigeria.
Mentions in The Guardian Nigeria, a YouTube video and on the website of a popular computer training institute New Horizons Nigeria all seem to lead back to February 2013 article on AnswersAfrica.com.
Titled “10 Interesting Facts about Nigeria”, author Emeka Chigozie claims in fourth place that “Nigeria boasts in being the most suitable habitat for the world’s largest diversity of the most colourful creatures – the butterflies” [sic]. Chigozie added that the areas around Calabar in Cross River state near the Cameroon border are “widely believed” to be the location of the most butterfly species in the world.
Is this belief based on fact?
1,828 butterfly species identified
Africa Check asked AnswersAfrica for data supporting this claim but they haven’t yet responded.
Butterfly enthusiast Adrian Hoskins lists 17,657 butterfly species in the 2007 World Butterfly Census he compiled. Nigeria has 1,828 identified species of butterflies on a 2009 species checklist of the African Butterfly Database, compiled in conjunction with the African Butterfly Research Institute in Kenya.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international non-governmental organisation, the ecoregion that straddles the Cameroon-Nigeria border is especially rich in forest butterfly species due to the favourable microclimate there.
Cameroon has even more species on the checklist than Nigeria, with 2,173. But this count is still less than half the almost 5,500 species of butterflies listed by the Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity Project for the five tropical Andean countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Through this project, expert taxonomists collated data of butterfly specimens held by museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum in London. The project website states that “whichever dimension is considered, the world’s diversity of butterflies, like that of most other organisms, reaches its indisputable peak in the tropical Andes”.
Peru specifically has the largest diversity as it has a wide range of habitats, ranging from deserts to rainforests and cloud forests.
Prof Gerardo Lamas, former director of Peru’s National History museum and who helped compile a checklist of butterflies in the Americas, told Africa Check: “I’m afraid the Nigerian claim is nonsensical. As of today, there are 4,357 species of butterflies (Lepidoptera: Papilionoidea) recorded from Peru, which is more than in the whole of Africa.”
Poor data on diversity in Nigeria
It’s not quite the end of our story as Nigeria’s butterfly species are not accurately documented, entomologist and lecturer at the University of Lagos, Dr Fuad Adetoro, told Africa Check.
There could be many more species than the 1,828 listed by the African Butterfly Research Institute – but not as many as in Peru, a Nigerian based researcher of moths and butterflies (a lepidopterist), Chioma Ojianwuna, told Africa Check.
“It is important to know how rich and diverse these species are… Nigeria is rich and blessed but do we really know the exact number and species? No.”
The pretty insects pollinate crops and serve as ecological indicators, especially within polluted ecosystems. Ojianwuna argues for more protected areas as urbanisation, selective logging and human activities destroy the habitat of forest and endemic butterfly species.
Conclusion: Nigeria does not have the world’s most butterfly species
Nigeria’s abundance of butterflies is not contested, especially near its border with Cameroon. A checklist by the African Butterfly Research Institute shows 1,828 butterfly species have been identified in the country.
But this figure is eclipsed by the 4,357 species of butterflies identified in Peru alone.
That said, Nigeria does not have a comprehensive census of butterflies. But an expert told Africa Check it would not turn up enough species to take the world crown.
Researched by David Ajikobi, Africa Check a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck and www.africacheck.org