Imagine a world where everyone is a champion for wildlife, where exploration leads to conservation, where art is a catalyst for regeneration. That’s the world Natural Habitat Adventures and Nat Hab Philanthropy grant recipient Champions for Wildlife are striving to create.

At Nat Hab, we’re not just passionate about delivering extraordinary nature expeditions. We’re also deeply committed to conserving our planet’s most precious and imperiled places. That’s why we established Nat Hab Philanthropy, our dedicated arm for conservation and sustainable development efforts.

Through Nat Hab Philanthropy, we support a wide range of initiatives in the destinations we visit. Our commitment to conservation has inspired us to take a leadership role in supporting grassroots efforts and local communities in places that have captured the hearts of our guestsfrom supporting ecosystem rehabilitation for Galapagos tortoises to research on gray whales and reducing plastic waste in sea turtle habitats.

So, Nat Hab Philanthropy is thrilled to shine a spotlight on one of our 2023 grant recipients that embodies the spirit of Nat Hab’s mission of conservation through exploration, protecting our planet by inspiring others, and supporting local communities.

champions for wildlife children painting conservation butterflies non profit education

Meet Champions for Wildlife

Based in western North Carolina, Champions for Wildlife’s mission is to inspire kids to be champions for wildlife through art. In its first full year of operation, Champions for Wildlife taught more than 3,700 kids using interactive art-based learning experiences; now, that number is well over 5,000. 

With two teachers on staff as of 2024, Champions for Wildlife offers after-school and in-class lessons as well as community events focused on habitat protection and conservation education.

Champions for Wildlife’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Loti Woods, explained: 

“Our vision is to create a sense of wonder and appreciation for wildlife that can ignite a child’s lifelong passion for conservation. Our kids then become true champions for wildlife and habitat. We believe the more you learn, the more you love, the more you protect.”

We believe that, too! That’s why Nat Hab Philanthropy provided early-stage funding for Champions for Wildlife.

Woods shares, “The grant we received from Natural Habitat Adventures helped us jump-start our educational lessons, which always include an art activity on the monarch butterfly migration. We are so appreciative.”

Here’s a peek at their inspiring work, how they’re making a difference in monarch butterfly conservation education and habitat preservation and how you can, too!

Why Monarch Butterflies?

There are many reasons to focus on monarch butterflies in conservation education: They’re beautiful, they’re endangered, and in most of North America, they flit through towns and gardens twice a year. We can also empower kids to take immediate, impactful action.

Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer Court Whelan explains it another way:

“Monarchs are often one of the first living creatures North American students learn about in depth. Many elementary classrooms use the monarch to teach basic biology as well as to introduce topics like ecosystems, migrations, animal behavior, and even things like metamorphosis and life cycles.

I’m so pleased Champions for Wildlife has chosen to focus on the monarch, as we need a mindset shift in our culture about the value of nature, habitat, wildlife, and conservation, and starting with younger generations is key,” Whelan adds.

Monarch Butterfly Migration

Millions of monarch butterflies, over multiple generations, embark on a voyage from the northeastern regions of the United States and Canada to the warmer climes of the Central Highlands of Mexico and back again each spring. (Nat Hab travelers have an opportunity to witness this stunning spectacle on our Kingdom of the Monarchs adventure!)

Whelan explains, “There are few animals that cover a span and capture our attention quite like monarchs. They’re found just about everywhere in North America, are so elegant and beautiful as we see them flitting around our yards and parks, and they symbolize so much in the world of nature and conservation. Seemingly fragile, they also undergo one of the longest animal migrations on Earth.”

This migration is not only a testament to the butterflies’ resilience but also a critical component of our ecosystems. The monarchs’ journey begins as the temperatures drop in the fall, prompting them to leave their breeding grounds in search of the overwintering sanctuaries found in the oyamel fir forests of Mexico. These forests provide the ideal microclimate for the butterflies to survive the winter months.

monarch butterfly migration

© Hank Davis

The monarchs utilize a combination of air currents and thermals to travel vast distances, some flying as far as 3,000 miles. Remarkably, the generation that makes this journey will not return; instead, it will lay eggs in the south, and their offspring will continue the cycle. The monarchs’ migration is a multi-generational relay that sees up to four or five generations completing the round-trip

Endangered Migration

This incredible journey is fraught with challenges. Monarchs face threats from habitat loss due to urban development and agriculture, which reduce the availability of milkweed—the sole food source for monarch caterpillars. Pesticides and herbicides used in farming can also be detrimental to their health and survival. Climate change poses another significant threat, as it can alter the timing of the monarchs’ migration and affect the availability of food sources along the route. 

The importance of the monarch migration extends beyond the survival of the species itself. Monarchs are pollinators, playing a vital role in the health of our ecosystems. They contribute to the genetic diversity of plants and the production of seeds and fruits that are essential for other wildlife.

As monarchs congregate in Mexico’s butterfly sanctuaries, they create a spectacle of sound and color. Mexico’s butterfly sanctuaries are the only place in the world where you can actually hear butterflies’ wings beating, a serene and humbling experience that underscores the need to protect these majestic creatures and their epic journey.

Champions for Wildlife is just getting startedand they’re scaling fast to inspire kids across the U.S. to support the monarch migration.

Champions for Wildlife and the Monarch Initiative

Champions for Wildlife’s engaging, interactive, fun, art-infused lessons focus on biodiversity and species, including the critically endangered eastern monarch butterfly. 

Woods explains how Champions for Wildlife inspires young conservationists in a series of messages since receiving the Nat Hab Philanthropy grant:

We’ve partnered with several local organizations and schools to help kids raise monarch caterpillars in their classrooms in 2024 and learn about monarchs and pollinators. Next fall, we’ll be teaching about the monarch migration using the Symbolic Migration Butterfly kits you see in the photos.”

“We have just finished developing a curriculum on pollinators and the monarch butterfly migration and the kids have loved all the lessons and the art activities Nat Hab Philanthropy helped fund. And of course, this ties in with your monarch tours to the winter home of the monarchs in Angangueo, Mexico.”

“Our Monarch butterfly made it to a Mexican classroom, as you can see in the photo. The kids are so excited! They will receive a butterfly back this spring from a different class in Mexico as the monarchs start their migration north toward Canada,” Woods adds.

One of our favorite stories from Woods illustrates the transformation conservation education can produce:

“Before our first lesson on monarchs and other pollinators began, one of the boys shared his favorite activity: stomping bugs in his backyard. Hmmm…

Two weeks later, we were back in the same classroom, teaching about the monarch migration. The timing was perfect as the monarchs were just traveling through Tryon, North Carolina, (our hometown) on their journey from Canada to Mexico.

As the kids were finalizing their creations, the little boy who bragged about stomping bugs two weeks earlier came up to us and said, ‘I saved a bee! It was drowning in our bird bath, so I scooped it up with my hands and put it on the ground to dry. Then I went and got a rock and put it in the birdbath so the bees would have a place to land without drowning.’ It’s moments like these that we know we are making a difference.”

How to Support Monarch Butterflies

Are you inspired to support monarch butterflies and other pollinators in your garden or local community? Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Learn more or Register your local school in the Symbolic Migration program. To learn more about the project’s impact on conservation education or register your school, visit the Journey North Symbolic Migration website.
  • Create a Butterfly Garden: Plant native milkweed along with flowering plants including bushes, wildflowers, grasses and trees. Milkweed which is the only plant on which a monarch will lay its eggs and caterpillars will feed. Avoid the use of pesticides in your garden or yard as they can kill both caterpillars and butterflies. Provide water and cover along with butterfly habitat nectar.
  • Use Nat Hab & WWF content resources: Teach kids or give talks in your local garden club or arboretum. Check out Nat Hab’s Monarch Butterfly videos and webinars. WWF provides a comprehensive Monarch Butterfly Conservation Education Toolkit designed for teachers and available to everyone.
  • Visit the 129,000-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near Angangueo, Mexico. Witness one of the world’s most astounding natural events as you sit among 300 million monarchs as they arrive from their 3000-mile migration across North America. Visit three different monarch butterfly sanctuaries. Butterfly ecotourism is one way to assist in providing a viable and more sustainable source of economic sustenance than logging.
  • Become a citizen scientist and report your sightings of butterflies. Sign up for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum’s Journey North citizen science monarch butterfly migration project to report monarch butterfly sightings. MonarchWatch, hosted by the University of Kansas is another robust source for resources and a great place to upload your sightings and observations.
monarch butterfly woman travel conservation mexico

© Court Whelan

What’s next for Champions of Wildlife

Woods reports that next fall, Champions for Wildlife will complete a minimum of 10 Symbolic Monarch Migration lesson series in the fall, with hundreds of butterfly drawings mailed to Mexico.

Champions for Wildlife’s long-term vision is to have an online bilingual Kids Corner filled with hundreds of art activities for native animals and plants, plus a vibrant network of local wildlife Kid’s Clubs across the country where kids are inspired and empowered to protect habitats and wildlife. 

Each local club could invite local volunteer artists and wildlife conservationists to guide kids through art-infused conservation education activities in their own ecosystems.

What a vision! Woods adds, “We’ll start by fine-tuning our wildlife/art lessons locally in Western NC and then adding them to the online Kid’s Corner.”

Just as the monarch butterfly depends on its habitat for survival, our planet depends on the next generation for its future. Nat Hab and Champions for Wildlife are nurturing this generation, using art to inspire them to become champions for wildlife.

Are you an educator, or do you know someone who is? Stay tuned for the next round of Nat Hab’s teacher travel scholarship, the Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant. Check out this account featuring Mireille Hess, a third-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary School in Greenfield, Wisconsin, who received the 2019 Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant and experienced Mexico’s monarch migration.