Walking through the Mexican Highlands, you can almost hear a little flutter. Footsteps slowly approach the noise as the forest in the distance comes into view. As you get closer, you realize the trees are shimmering orange and black. Suddenly, you find yourself standing under a canopy of life, filled with millions of monarch butterflies.
“It’s totally magical,” Dr. Court Whelan, Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel at Natural Habitat Adventures, said. “You feel like you’re in a fairy tale, like a monarch snow globe.”
This year, the monarch butterflies’ presence in Mexico increased 144 percent from last year, the largest recorded growth in 12 years.
“I’ve been coming to see the monarch butterflies for 16 years, and even I was taken aback,” Dr. Whelan said. “Even before the reports came out, I could tell this was not a normal year.”
Monarchs migrate thousands of miles south to spend the winter in Mexico, where the consistent climate can mean a better chance of survival for these insects. Spanning over three to five generations of monarchs, and against all odds, these little migrating butterflies are growing in numbers, thanks to conservation.
“I’d like to think conservation played pivotal role,” Dr. Whelan said. “This might be the tipping point for long-term monarch conservation.”
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The show continues with amazing #monarchs flying, and blanketing the surroundings in their winter home here in #Mexico. Words cannot describe the beauty and rarity of what we’ve seen this season. Exceptional in every sense of the word.
A post shared by Court Whelan (@court_whelan) on
Though conservationists, including Dr. Whelan, are wary to celebrate a long-term victory just yet, Dr. Whelan acknowledges that this growth in monarch numbers is a huge win in the conservation community. From milkweed planting efforts in the U.S. and Canada to protecting forests in Mexico, community members have rallied to conserve one of the world’s most iconic butterflies. In addition to these community efforts, ecotourism also plays its part by putting economic value on protecting the sanctuaries where monarchs are found and educating visitors on this scientific phenomenon.
“Ecotourism has added tremendous value to the forest and the trees,” Dr. Whelan explains. “When things have value, you protect them.”
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The scientific mystery behind the monarch migration captured the hearts and attention of people worldwide. In the 1940s, scientists employed the help of hundreds of volunteers to tag monarchs in an effort to discover where they were migrating. Since then, the congregation of monarchs has become a popular tourist destination, where travelers can witness this natural wonder.
The monarch butterfly colonies in Mexico have become a symbol of both conservation and scientific discovery, which is why Natural Habitat Adventures thought it would be the perfect place to send two environmental teachers for our Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant this past January. Mireille Hess and Trevor Hance were both thrilled to see the migration first hand, which they have both taught in their respective schools.
“I think it’s even more significant that they were here in this monumental year,” Dr. Whelan said.
Though monarch butterflies still face threats from climate change, deforestation and habitat loss, this extremely high increase in population is a testament to worldwide conservation efforts. Many people have planted milkweed, which is both food for caterpillars and a habitat for laying eggs. In Mexico, organizations, including World Wildlife Fund, plant flowers to provide the butterflies with nectar and work to protect their forest sanctuaries. While the monarchs are not out of the woods quite yet, we’re happy to see their population soaring to new heights, just like our butterflies.
“For the first time in a long time, it’s all coming together,” Dr. Whelan said. “It’s all coming together for the monarch.”