Masters of migration: thanks to the efforts of scientists and nature enthusiasts world-wide, the majestic monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico are being protected for future generations.
From time immemorial, monarch butterflies have been migrating thousands of miles from the Great Lakes region of North America to spend their winters in the dense oyamel forests of the Mexican states of Michoacan and Mexico. Known for their intense orange wings, black veins, and white spots, the monarchs form veritable rivers of blazing color as they fly their diagonal route over North America and the Gulf of Mexico each year, guided by the sun. Scientists studied them closely for years, unable to find the final destination of their migration. Meanwhile, Mexican peasants were welcoming the butterflies winter after winter on their communal lands without realizing they held the final piece of the puzzle. In 1975, careful sleuthing and combined efforts finally led to the answer to the great mystery of the monarch migratory route.
Since then, scientists, peasant farmers, and even poets have been engaged in an epic struggle to protect the monarchs and their incomparable journey. In the year 2000, a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was designated in Michoacan, and in 2008 the area was declared a World Heritage Site, increasing hopes--and shared responsibility--for the preservation of these fragile and tenacious insects. To understand the importance of this endeavor, three great stories must be told: the story of monarch migration, how the migration routes were found, and how this miracle of nature is being protected.
In the 1920s, when Frederick Urquhart was a child, he looked at the autumn sky colored orange by groups of monarchs headed south from Canada and was fascinated by the question of where their journey led. At the time, no one knew the answer to that question. By the late 1930s, Urquhart and his wife Norah Patterson had come up with the idea of marking the butterflies' wings with tiny adhesive stickers to learn about their migratory routes.
Later, in another part of the continent, Mexican scientists Carlos Galindo Leal and Eduardo Rendon Salinas began to research the same question, using their house as a laboratory before receiving funding from the University of Ontario. Two decades after the Urquharts began marking butterflies, Galindo and Rendon organized thousands of volunteers to participate in marking monarchs for a migration study in Mexico. That was when they discovered that monarchs did not fly at night and that they flew over the Gulf of Mexico. In 1960, through the Mexican Forests Program of the World Wildlife Foundation, Galindo and Rendon published a monograph on monarchs. They continued to follow the route for many years without finding the exact place where the butterflies were hibernating.
Meanwhile, in the town of Gontepec, Michoacan, another boy--Homero Aridjis, the youngest of five brothers born to a Greek father and a Mexican mother--used to climb Cerro Altamirano near his home to look at the monarch butterflies that flooded the forests for almost four months in the winter before they left again, heading north. No one hi iris area knew where the butterflies came from or where they went. "When I began to write poems," Aridjis said, "I used to climb the hill that dominated the memory of my childhood. Its slopes, gullies, and streams were full of animal voices--owls, hummingbirds, mocking birds, coyotes, deer, armadillo. The natural world stimulated my poetry." But of all of these animals, he says the monarch butterflies were his "first love." Aridjis won Mexico's very prestigious Xavier Villarrutia Award at age 24 and years later, monarchs were still making their appearance in his writing. His 1971 book, El poeta nino, includes a beautiful poem that goes like this:
"You travel/by day/ like a winged tiger/ burning yourself/ in your flight/ Tell me/ what supernatural/ life is/painted on your wings...."
Back to the story of the scientists. In 1973, when the Urquharts were still trying to decipher the mystery of the monarch's migratory route, they published an announcement in Mexican newspapers asking for volunteers to help look for the butterflies. Ken Brugger, a North American businessman married to Michoacan native Catalina Aguado, responded by offering to follow the migration route on his motorcycle. In 1975 they found a peasant farmer named Benito Juarez who provided them with the essential piece of the puzzle. Juarez lived in a place where the monarchs had been arriving every year since pre-Hispanic times. They arrived around the Day of the Dead in early November, he said, and they left again in March. He showed Brugger and Aguado how millions of monarchs blended into the oyamel fir trees on the slopes of Cerro Pelon.
Brugger and Aguado contacted Urquhart, who was then the curator of the insects collection at the Royal Ontario Museum and director of "The Monarch Team." The Urquharts travelled immediately to Mexico full of hope but also fearful that they might "never witness what we have waited so long to see."
Finding the endpoint of the monarch migration and their place of hibernation was the treasure that Urquhart and his wife had been searching for all of their lives. The Canadian pioneer was able to see them not only on Cerro Pelon but also in the Sierra Chincua and in El Rosario, the largest sanctuary in Michoacan. Urquhart did not reveal the exact location of the butterflies, but the indications he gave were enough for another North American scientist and monarch specialist Dr. Lincoln P. Brower, to figure it out. Brower was the one who had discovered the secret of how monarchs protected themselves from predators through a poisonous substance in their wings. The substance develops when monarchs eat and assimilate a toxic latex found in the perennial plant called milkweed.
In partnership with Dr. Bill Calvert, Brower followed the clues left by Urquhart and found the destination of the monarchs' amazing migration and the place of their hibernation. His fascination led him to exclaim that he was witnessing "the eighth wonder of the world." With the support of institutional partnerships, efforts to unravel the mystery of monarch migration were redoubled. Here, the discovery story comes full circle, because Brower's passion for monarchs also led him to get to know poet Homero Aridjis, who is currently Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Together, Brower and Aridjis have led important efforts to protect the monarch butterfly.
Now the story of the butterfly itself: Between November and late February each year, the trunks and branches of the oyamel fir trees in Michoacan provide a place for millions of butterflies to shelter themselves from the cold and hibernate. When the sun's rays warm them, they flutter their wings in a synchronistic movement that produces a subtle and unforgettable music. No less amazing are the elaborate mating rituals that occur in the spring after the butterflies have had a chance to regain their energy. Finally, sometime in March or April, the monarchs begin their journey back north. They will not reach their ultimate destination, but their descendents will. How does this work, exactly? Today tourists and locals can learn about the cycle of monarch migration at a number of butterfly sanctuaries.
El Rosario is one of four sanctuaries in Mexico open to the public. Visitors' initial encounter with the butterflies will be in the form of handicrafts--pencils, ceramic vases, or embroidery art-all adorned with monarch butterflies, which for pre-Hispanic cultures represent the souls of the dead.
El Rosario sanctuary is located at an altitude of 11,150 feet, and ninny hikers accept the walking sticks offered by the locals who care for the sanctuary. It is a good idea to ask for a trained guide, most of whom are descendents of the Mazahua and Otomi indigenous communities. Their stories and the educational signs along the way help visitors understand how monarch migration works.
The migration of monarchs is a unique endeavor among all species. For one thing, only one in every four to six generations of monarchs actually makes the trip. The generation that visitors see in the sanctuary is called the Methuselah generation. These butterflies have travelled to a place they have never been before and have managed to find the exact site that their great-grandparents found the year before. Most monarch generations are born in the spring or summer at various places along the migratory route. They five for only four or five weeks, they develop, mate, and reproduce quickly, and they don't really migrate, though they do travel northward completing the route of previous generations. The butterflies born in the fall, however, are the ones that migrate all the way south and then north again. This generation of monarch can live as long as eight months! (Hence they are named after the biblical Methuselah, who was said to have lived 969 years.) The Methuselah butterflies fly south from their northern habitats in the fall, but they don't develop sexually and mate until spring after hibernating in the Mexican forests. Weighing only a half a gram and with a wing span of less than four inches, they can fly--if the winds are good--up to 80 miles an hour following the course of the sun. Once they arrive at their ancestral sanctuaries in Mexico, they recover their energy by hibernating in the advantageous micro-climate of the oyamel forests. In the spring, when they awake from hibernation, the females begin their aerial mating rituals. The males pursue and nudge them and finally take them to the ground. These Methuselah butterflies, male and female, will begin the return journey northward after mating. They will die before they get to the northern-most points, but, they will leave their eggs behind en route, assuring that the cycle will lead to other generations that will continue travelling northward, eventually producing another Methuselah generation that will fly south in the tall.
The Mazahua people say that they used to climb the mountains to entertain the butterflies with the soft music of reed flutes. But today with the monarch populations in decline, the guideline in organized ecotourism is to be as silent as possible. Guides will also insist that visitors not remove the butterflies from the forests either dead or alive. One female alone can lay up to 400 eggs and it is not good to disperse their dead bodies far from the forests that were traditionally identified as "a magic circle."
One 80-year-old peasant woman, Rosa Martinez, who has never before been to any of the sanctuaries looks at the timid flights of the butterflies in the winter sun and says she feel grateful to God for allowing her to come to this place that she had always longed to see. Teresa Mendez and Lucas Moreno, a couple that has made the trek several times, remember that in decades past, the monarchs could be seen from the very beginning of the path. "Every time we come back there are new clearings in the forest. There used to be more monarchs. You would come walking up and go by tons of them," they say. It's true, the population has declined, but for the person hiking up here for the first time, the spectacle of the swarms of butterflies continues to be astonishing.
The monarchs that take refuge in the forests of central Mexico belong to one of two migrant groups that come from the Great Lakes area. In addition to these, there are other groups that are born in the Rocky Mountains and hibernate in Central and Southern California. In the United States, accelerated urban development and pesticides that destroy the milkweed plants where the monarchs lay their eggs are threatening this centuries-old migration. In Mexico, deforestation is one of the most devastating phenomena. This leads us back to the final story within our story, about efforts being made to protect monarch habitat and migration.
We return to our poet, Homero Aridjis, who has written a fictionalized biography about his childhood titled La montana de las mariposas [Butterfly Mountain]. Aridjis wrote of the tragedy of seeing how more trees were being cut down each year and how as the oyamel firs were cleared, fewer and fewer butterflies were coming to their winter refuge. "The images of my childhood were destroyed, and the possibility that my town of Contepec could turn into a wasteland surrounded by denuded hills filled me with despair." Aridjis left home for Mexico City when he was seventeen and emigrated to the United States and Europe around 1980, but he has returned each year to hike up to the sanctuary. The ascent for him represents "not just a rite of passage from the past, but a present day ritual to honor a life that was disappearing from the face of the earth." The peasant farmers there have told him about the logging, the fires, and the decline of the monarch populations. "I always dreamed about turning Cerro Altamirano into a national park, even though I knew that no government decree alone would guarantee the survival of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries. It is not only the hills of the nearby rural cooperatives that are being deforested, but all of the hills that once belonged to our protector gods, like Popocatepetl." In 1985 he formed a group called the "Group of One Hundred" intellectuals, which issued a statement about the environmental deterioration of the area and convinced the government to provided official protection to the forests sheltering the butterflies. The formation of this group led to an award for Aridjis, already the recipient of several literary awards. This time it was the Global 500 Award given to him by the United Nations Environmental Program.
In 1986 after realizing that only the core area of each sanctuary would be protected, but not the buffer zone, he was able to get Cerro Altamirano included in the decree, along with El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, El Campanario, and Cerro Pelon. They were all turned into protected areas. The sanctuaries were established to ensure the continuation of the migration and of the genetic bank of the numerous species that lived there. But in spite of the ban on forest exploitation, deforestation continued.
In 1992, Aridjis reported a sudden increase in death rates among monarchs in El Rosario and Sierra Chincua. Dr. Lincoln Brower, who often explained that the forest acted "as a blanket and a shade cover" for the butterflies, stated that the oyamel trees had become a blanket full of holes, unable to protect the monarchs from the severities of the climate. In 1993, both the scientist and the poet made recommendations for the conservation of the forest, predicting a collapse of the hibernation pattern if deforestation were not stopped. Significant national and international efforts have been made to keep this from happening, but the measures by themselves do not transform the overwhelming social situation summed up in a conversation that Aridjis says he will never forget. It was when a local peasant spoke to him about the poverty in the area. "How do you support your families?" Aridjis asked him. "By cutting trees," he responded. He got the same answer when he asked how his children would survive. "And what will they do when there are no more trees to cut?" "We will go to Mexico City or to the United States," was the reply.
Meanwhile, Dr. Brower continues to call attention to the fact that no new hibernation areas have been found. Apparently, when the monarchs arrive at damaged forests, they choose to stay there and survive the best they can, rather than move again. Brower has received information about woodcutters who have managed to evade detection in the reserve. They are getting into the protected areas on alternate routes by horseback. "That's bad news," he says with sadness. "This kind of unauthorized logging is causing great damage to important hibernation forests in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve."
The Mexican sanctuaries shelter such a high concentration of the monarch population--millions of butterflies per acre--that their environmental deterioration could endanger the entire migratory phenomenon. Brower and a team of scientists have been able to research the way in which the oyamel tree trunks provide thermal protection for the monarchs that winter in Mexico. They concluded that the habitat has a "hot water bottle effect," increasing protection against freezing for both wet and dry butterflies. That's why the plan to conserve the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve must ensure "strict enforcement of the law against the extraction of the largest trees and protection for the mature oyamel forests."
The removal of a few trees is enough to change the micro-climate, and deforestation has created temperatures so cold in some places that it is forcing the male butterflies to cover the females to protect them. Even so, thousands are dead by morning. Near the entrance to the El Rosario Sanctuary, Homero Gomez, the president of the rural cooperative association, tells about his observations. "Things aren't the same as before. With global warming we now have some butterflies mating in December or January as if it were spring. Also, the ones that were in the lowest part of the forest before are now going up much higher into the Valle de los Conejos and Las Balsitas. They are more reclusive, and it looks like they are searching for the climate they need."
Brower says that he dreams of "the day when the oyamel fir trees will measure three feet in diameter and will grow into a magnificent healthy forest that shelters millions and millions of happy monarch butterflies who spend their winter safe and sound in this enchanting part of Mexico." Meanwhile, Gomez believes that the problem is the high demographic density of human beings and the poverty they live in. The solution is not just in prohibition, he says, but also in supporting programs for sustainable development and employment.
The monarchs themselves seem to be teaching a lesson with their incredible resistance. The Sierra El Campanario environmental organization and the Monarch Foundation have helped the community to reforest hundreds of acres. Gomez says the trees "maintain the quality and quantity of water, prevent erosion, and help to ensure that cleared land is converted back into forest." In the end, all those involved know that this is not just about preserving an area of forested mountains or the cross-continental flight of orange butterflies. It is also about preserving a balance of life and increasing the experience of beauty that gives meaning to our existence.
Colombian journalist and author Adriana Herrera is based in Miami, Florida.