By Mac Mirabile, Senior Director of Analytics at World Wildlife Fund
A solitary monarch butterfly flutters along a dusty path leading our group of eager ecotourists toward the monarch’s wintering home high among the oyamel fir and pine trees of the Sierra Madre mountains in Michoacán, Mexico. Just thirty minutes earlier we had taken a pair of open-back pickup trucks up through the winding roads leading to the El Rosario Preserve where we mounted some horses to aid in the steep climb to best view the colonies of the migratory monarchs.
Monarchs are the only species of butterfly that makes a two-way migration, and the colony of butterflies we are hiking toward has been slowly emerging from a quasi-hibernation state since arriving here in early November. Murals on the town walls in nearby Angangueo illustrate the story of the mariposa monarca (Spanish for monarch butterfly) in which the annual migration of hundreds of millions of butterflies coincided with the Día de los Muertos. Local communities celebrated the return of the souls of their ancestors as clouds of butterflies filled the sky before disappearing into the forests for wintering.
These overwintering locations of monarch butterfly colonies were not scientifically “discovered” until 1975, and soon after scientists began debating the best way to preserve the habitat of the migratory monarchs. With legal and illegal logging rapidly shrinking the already small patches of forest where the majority of monarchs migrate, WWF worked with local stakeholders to begin conserving the forests and supporting the expansion of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The recognition of the importance of conserving biospheres like El Rosario has transformed the surrounding town of Angangueo and the livelihoods of its inhabitants. Throughout the town, paintings of monarchs adorn the brightly colored buildings — beautiful reminders of how ecotourism can help people and nature coexist.
Ecotourism employs many locals, including our guide, who is now encouraging us to continue our hike to the first viewing area of the El Rosario colony. Clouds of dust kick up as we trek along the rocky path. We hear the calls of hummingbirds all around us and catch glimpses of their green iridescence among the Red Salvia.
Monarchs flit from flower to flower as we walk along the well-worn path circumscribed with rope to keep visitors at a safe distance from the colonies. Momentarily, we arrive at the highest observation point in El Rosario. The magnitude of the setting is difficult to describe, truly a unique experience in nature.
Clusters of monarchs roost on every part of seemingly every tree in view. The pale underwings of the monarchs help camouflage them against the grayish trunks of the oyamel tree, a sacred fir native to central Mexico where monarchs seek refuge on their migration. Branches sag under the weight of thousands of monarchs. Looking carefully, brilliant specs of orange begin to shimmer as individual butterflies begin to open their wings.
The colony looks peaceful from this distance, but through our spotting scope, we see the butterflies basking in the morning sun, absorbing the heat on the surface of their wings. The colony is slowly but surely awakening as the sun warms the butterflies by the millions. Countless monarchs begin to circle overhead, resting momentarily on wildflowers and visitors alike. There is excitement at the activity but also a reverence for the spectacle that so few have been privileged to witness.
Above the whispers of spectators, we hear a cluster opening up and thousands of butterflies beating their wings, a sound that collectively resembles the rustling of leaves. Streams of butterflies take to the air in unison. The monarchs encircle us, providing a pageant of photo opportunities at every turn. For hours, we are surrounded by the outwardly haphazard flight of millions of monarchs as they take to the sky.
As we continue our exploration of the preserve, we walk down steps with a breathtaking view of hills beyond the forest. Thousands of butterflies begin streaming past me; their path cutting across mine as some gather at a small stream. I turn towards the torrent of butterflies, and they flicker and dart around me on their way down to the welcome center to greet the next group of ecotourists.