The horse I rode up the Perro Celón mountain last year to see the Monarch butterflies won’t be carrying tourists this year. That’s because the butterfly sanctuary there has been closed as a precaution against COVID-19.
This year, the horse - like the one shown below (*see correction) - may be employed dragging logs down the steep rocky slopes. The trees are the Oyamel pines that create the cool and moist microclimate that provides safe conditions for the butterflies to overwinter in a state of diapause (dormancy).
But this year, the Monarch migration is at a perilous point with desperately poor communities turning to extraction from the forest for survival as jobs are lost in the COVID crisis.
I travelled over 4,600 kilometres south last year, the same distance this tiny insect flies every fall to return to the same colony site, often to the same tree that an ancestor left in the spring, five generations ago. To see the butterflies cloaking the trees in massive roosts and spread across the sky in dense clouds was truly magical.
I came away with an understanding that the butterfly, which has gone through major population declines in recent decades, continues to face many threats in its wintering grounds - climate change, legal and illegal logging, avocado plantations and development, and the poverty of the inhabitants of the towns and communities within the reserve.
However, I also felt hope, because of exciting initiatives on Perro Celón - one of several sanctuaries within UNESCO’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve - led by the husband-and-wife team of Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp.
Joel is native to Macheros, a community at the entrance to the sanctuary, with extensive family and business connections throughout the region. Ellen Sharp is American, a cultural anthropologist with wide-ranging academic contacts. Together, they started the JM Butterfly B&B in 2013 to provide sustainable employment that would not degrade the forest.
But logging continued and they realized they needed to do more. In 2017, they started Butterflies and their People, a charity that employs forest guardians to patrol the area to stop illegal logging, undertake reforestation projects, clearing trails and remove garbage. Illegal logging declined dramatically.
The charity now employs six forest guardians. The bed and breakfast employs 20 people. Another 150 work as guides and horse handlers. Each of these workers support many more in the close-knit community of Macheros, which has a population of 2,000.
My travelling companion Ellen Hartwick and I left last December feeling optimistic that the community development initiatives could turn things around and be a model for elsewhere where other species are threatened by human poverty. “It’s totally do-able,” Ellen said. The protected MBBR is so small - 56,259 hectares, a little bigger than Springwater Township, where I live - and the number of people who delight in the butterfly when it spreads across its 100 million acres of summer breeding grounds in the US and Canada is so vast - how can we NOT save the wintering grounds?
Sadly, in the month after we returned, the head administrator of El Rosario, one of the other sanctuaries within the MBBR, was killed, his body found in a well in a nearby town. A few days later the body of an El Rosario tour guide was found. No one has been charged in their deaths. It’s not known whether the murders were attacks on environmentalism or whether competing economic interests were in play.
A Voice of America reporter visited the MBBR in the wake of the murders. On Cerro Pelón she came across evidence of illegal logging and “found that in this place of beauty, there was an underside of lawlessness, corruption and poverty that could threaten the sustainability of the biosphere.”
Then COVID struck. Illegal logging ramped up. Not only were sources of revenue disappearing at the community level, but members who had been employed in towns and cities were laid off and returning home, having lost their income.
Ellen and Joel were taking bookings and devising safe protocols for B&B visitors, hoping to keep their operation going on a reduced basis. But in October the local authorities at Macheros decided not to open the Perro Celón Monarch butterfly sanctuary this year, citing concerns about outsiders bringing the corona virus to the community. (One other sanctuary is also closed, several others remain open.)
This was devastating for the bed and breakfast and the charity. But Joel and Ellen are not the kind of people who admit defeat. Adopt a Colony is a project they devised to protect the jobs of their staff and the forest guardians, and also keep people like us abreast of what’s happening to the butterflies in this year of crisis.
Adopt a Colony offers a subscription (US$89) to a multi-media e-magazine that’s sent out electronically twice a month. Each includes a 7-10 minute video of a virtual butterfly tour, a short video and article with an update on how the colony is developing, a cultural feature, an interview and a short video of natural beauty. Google: Adopt a Colony Butterflies and their People. There have been two issues of Adopt a Colony so far (back copies are provided with a subscription), and there are 8 more to go, until the butterflies have left by the end of March. The e-magazine is released on the 15th and 30th of each month.
Reports from Macheros are not encouraging. The Monarchs are more active than they should be in this early part of the season. A butterfly colony the forest guardians were monitoring has moved to a completely new area of the mountain. Ellen worries that this means it’s getting too warm because the canopy is being breached.
Information released by World Wildlife Fund-Mexico in March 2020 indicated that in 2019-2020, the area of forest occupied by monarch butterflies was 7 acres, down from 15 acres in the 2018 - 2019 season. This is estimated to mean 150 million butterflies were overwintering in 2019-20, a population decrease of 53% since the previous season.
A unique forest microclimate and the creature that depends on it… facing jeopardy, one log at a time.
*Correction: The horse (not the one I rode) was photographed in April 2020, having been in the line-up for tourists 6 weeks previously, and was used in logging legally, just outside the protected area. An earlier version of this blog gave a date of a few years ago and implied that the horse was being used for illegal logging. I recently did a presentation on the Monarch migration and my visit to Mexico. It’s on YouTube.Previous blogsMonarchs embarked on the journey northOn the Monarch migration trail: It's such a long way