Effect of violence on tourism brings new threat to the insect’s survival
EL ROSARIO, Mexico — A soft afternoon sunlight cuts into a chilly forest of firs that provides winter haven for tens of millions of monarch butterflies.
As their forebears have for time beyond memory, these monarchs have traveled as much as 3,000 miles, from across much of the United States and Canada, winging through Texas en route to this refuge in the central Mexico mountains.
Great gathered bunches of monarchs hang in the branches of the tall and densely packed oyamel trees. Clusters of them fall like melting snow from the limbs: some hitting the ground, where many die, others pirouetting gently aloft.
There’s scarcely a breeze, but the woods murmur with the flutter of fragile wings — maybe hundreds of thousands of them.
Yet bad things besiege the monarch’s world. Pesticides, herbicides, lawn mowers and spreading suburbia threaten summer breeding grounds in the north. Illegal logging, unseasonable storms and deep freezes stalk this southern lair.
Now, Mexico’s most pressing scourge, gangland violence, joins the monarch’s torments.
Fears of bloodshed have gutted tourism to the 216-square-mile reserve where the butterflies roost in the high mountains of Michoacan and Mexico states, some 120 miles west of Mexico City.
Only 33,000 tourists visited the reserve last winter, about a third of the normal traffic, and the numbers are down sharply from that so far this season, officials and local business people say.
Because many local villagers have been weaned from cutting down the forests by the promise of tourism income, the drop presents a worrying new hazard.
Drugs and violence
“Insecurity has affected everything,” said Ismael Gonzalez, 55, the senior elected official in El Rosario, the village that is the gateway to one of four butterfly sanctuaries open to the public. “If the tourists don’t come, people have to think of something else. Because you can’t survive only by farming the land.”
Drugs and violence
Michoacan and parts of neighboring states belong to La Familia, a homespun gangster band known for producing marijuana, methamphetamine and macabre murders.
La Familia gunmen last June ambushed a federal police convoy outside Zitacuaro, the city of 155,000 that anchors the butterfly reserve, killing 12 officers. In December, gangsters blockaded roads surrounding the city after the government killing of a La Familia chieftain.
Some residents say the gangsters are involved in illegal logging in the reserve as they branch out into extortion, kidnapping or whatever can generate income.
“Obviously that has affected us,” said Rosendo Caro, director of the reserve, who was shocked by the negative reactions when he met recently with a group in Chicago to talk about the butterflies and tourism. “The truth is that the majority of people have no desire to visit Michoacan, even those from Michoacan.
“But the violence is between the bad guys,” he said. “They don’t bother us.”
In fact, La Familia leaders promised last year they would not target tourists. There have been scattered rumors of tourists being targeted, butterfly advocates say, but nothing solid.
After more than four years of battling federal security forces and gangland rivals, La Familia is said to be on the ropes. Gang bosses reportedly announced last week that the gang was disbanding. Despite its reputation, state officials claim Michoacan recorded fewer than 200 gangland murders last year, a sliver of the 15,000 nationwide.
Loss of habitat
Peace would be a welcome boon for the butterflies. But they face a daunting crucible all the same.
The monarchs that arrived here in the fall are the great-grandchildren — and sometimes the great-great-great-grandchildren — of those that left 11 months ago. Scientists say the monarchs travel as much as 80 miles in a day, guided by the sun back to their Mexican winter home.
The loss of habitat and the destruction by herbicides of milkweed, the monarchs’ principal food, across the United States and Canada have pressured the butterflies’ population for decades, scientists say.
Here in rural central Mexico, houses and cleared fields climb the once-forested mountain slopes. Children play in village streets.
More than 500,000 people, most of them poor, live in and near the reserve. Beautiful and inspiring they may be, but weighing in at more than 900 individuals to the pound, the monarchs rank among the slightest of contenders.
“Nothing is favorable to them. There is a real struggle for existence,” says Orley “Chip” Taylor, a biology professor at the University of Kansas who directs Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to preserving the insects.
The butterflies’ population in Mexico last season — measured in terms of the acreage covered by their colonies — was only a quarter of the average recorded in the past 16 years. An early February freak storm toppled some 40,000 trees in the monarch reserve, and the freezing rain killed untold numbers.
Long-term trend grim
Monarch populations tend to swing wildly from year to year. Taylor and other experts are estimating a doubling of the monarch population when this year’s census is released by the Mexican branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
Still, Taylor and others say, unless a dramatic turnaround can be achieved, the long-term trend points to the eventual extermination of the monarchs, an end to one of the Americas’ greatest natural wonders.
“It gives you a sense of how difficult life is out there in relation to ours,” Taylor said. “Human beings are closing in on the habitat of all kinds of species. We’re closing in on a lot of things.”