On a frosty January morning in the village of Angangueo in central Mexico, I boarded a bus that was heading to El Rosario, one of 14 monarch butterfly overwintering sites protected within the country’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. I had joined a group traveling to this 138,000-acre reserve to photograph the annual gathering of these bright orange and black insects in their preferred winter habitat—towering oyamel fir trees. This is a spectacle that someday may not only be rarely seen but gone altogether.
These colorful migrants travel from southern Canada through a region in the United States known as the Central Flyway, ultimately coming to rest in central Mexico from November until early March. They pollinate plants over thousands of miles as they search for milkweeds on which to lay their eggs. They have become part of Indigenous communities’ cultures along their route for generations.
However, like many other insects, monarchs are being impacted by an increase in herbicide use, an altered climate and destruction of millions of acres of their habitat. Since 2016, an estimated 10 million acres of grassland have been plowed up across the United States and Canada’s Great Plains, much of which is monarch summer habitat. Timber companies and illegal loggers have also wiped out large swaths of forested wintering grounds within the mountains of central Mexico. One 2021 study by researchers at the University of Guadalajara estimates that 70 percent of the timber cut in Mexico is done so illegally.
This devastation of their habitat has been happening for decades. So on this journey I took in 2017, I was determined to do whatever I needed to do to see these magnificent fliers. I strained to hoist myself and my heavy camera bag onto the back of a small horse. With more than 2,600 feet of elevation gain ahead of me, the service of the tiny horse was greatly appreciated. After a 30-minute spiral up the steep mountain trail, the caravan came to a stop at a lush meadow at nearly 11,000 feet. The air was fresh and cool as we walked up the final half-mile stretch of trail that led into the forest.
I was having a difficult time seeing anything as my glasses were coated in a fine, brown sheen of dust. Suddenly, one of the other visitors in my group whispered “I see them.” I hastily wiped the haze from my lenses, catching a glimpse of a few butterflies that flitted and sipped deeply from deep blue flowers that grew alongside the path. “No, look there,” the woman repeated, pointing impatiently into the canopy. “Over there, at the top of those trees.”
The outstretched branches also obscured my view, but suddenly I realized that what I had first taken to be a clump of leaves was actually a huddled mass of hundreds of butterflies, knit closely together to conserve precious warmth. Occasionally one of the graceful insects broke free from its group, drifting slowly down to the forest floor to take nourishment from a wildflower. Just then, the sun broke through the clouds, sending thousands of monarch butterflies soaring into the air, their wings filtering the warm light like orange shards of stained glass. The chorus of flapping wings sounded like a soft rain falling to the forest floor. I was entranced.
Today, an estimated 21 million monarch butterflies overwinter in the reserve each year. Yet this mass of life is deceiving. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, migrating North American monarch populations have declined steeply during the past five decades, dropping a sharp 85 percent during the past 20 years. In 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the migratory population endangered. To reverse the loss of these iconic insects, Indigenous peoples and others in communities in or near Mexico’s butterfly sanctuaries are working with conservationists to restore their precious forests. This job has become essential to them and the butterflies. For some, it has also proven dangerous.
An Honored Insect
Genetic studies have shown that monarch butterflies evolved from a migratory species in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, an area well-known for its butterfly diversity. Then as glaciers began receding at the end of the last ice age, milkweeds—the plants on which monarch caterpillars feed—spread north. The monarchs followed their food source’s northward march but retained their tie to their ancestral wintering sites in the mountains of the Mexican states of Michoacán and Mexico.
Although monarchs have spread or been introduced into locations around the world—including to Central and South America, Hawaii and even Australia—the butterfly’s central North American population is the only one that migrates such a long distance. At the end of the summer, as days become shorter and temperatures drop, a group of adult monarch butterflies, known as the Methuselah generation (after a Biblical character who purportedly lived to the ripe old age of 969) draw from stored body fats that would otherwise be used for producing offspring to fuel their 3,000-mile flight from southern Canada and northern United States to their roosting sites in central Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. Although California and Florida populations migrate a short distance, they tend to remain closer to where they were born throughout the year. Monarchs in more isolated places like Puerto Rico have evolved short, round wings, as unlike their continental cousins, they no longer need long wings to complete an impressively long flight.
In 1975, the “discovery” of a monarch butterfly roost at the Cerro Pelón area of Mexico by a young Mexican woman named Catalina (Aguado) Trail and her then husband, American Ken Brugger, made international news. The pair became famous in August 1976, when a photo of Trail blanketed in butterflies was published on the cover of National Geographic magazine alongside the headline, “Discovered: The Monarch’s Mexican Haven.” This announcement led Mexico’s government to designate areas of the forest as protected in 1980, 1986 and 2000. By then the reserve had been expanded to include 217 square miles and was named a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it a World Heritage Site.
However, Trail and Brugger weren’t the first people to discover the site. Indigenous connections to the butterfly have existed for millennia. The Purépecha people of northwestern Michoacán called the butterfly “parákata,” or “the harvester,” because the arrival of its overwintering population coincided with the community’s annual harvest. In an article published in 2020 for Forest History Today, Leonel Moreno Espinoza of Cerro Pelón recounted stories of elders who believed that the “butterflies were born from the oyamel seeds” and that people often encountered roosts in the 1940s while walking through the forests in search of lost cattle or collecting water.
People have become more aware of the monarch’s plight in part due to the recent rise in popularity of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Its ceremonies are thought to be at least 3,000 years old. For example, Mexica (Aztec) people honored Mictecacihuatl, a queen who was sacrificed as a child so that she could became the wife of the king of the underworld. During her stay in the land of the dead, she protected the bones of the deceased. After a time, she eventually returned to be among the living, and the people honored her with a festival to thank her for protecting their ancestors. Over the centuries, butterflies and ultimately monarchs were incorporated into the celebration due to the belief that they carried the souls of deceased warriors and loved ones to the land of the dead.
“There’s tons of imagery in Mesoamerican art that has butterflies of some sort, and it’s fairly easy to recognize the iconography, but it’s unclear if that butterfly is actually a reference to the monarch butterfly,” said Cynthia Vidaurri, a folklorist at the National Museum of the American Indian. She said much of the historical information about the Indigenous people of Mexico comes from the chronicles of Spanish colonists who arrived there during the 1500s.
While the dates of the day of remembrance have changed several times, today Día de los Muertos is held on November 1 and 2, which coincides with the monarch’s return to central Mexico. This is when families will build “ofrendas”—altars filled with orange marigolds, food and monarch artwork placed beside photos of deceased relatives—to invite their loved ones to return and spend time them. Some communities now also host large parades with impressive floats accompanied by people wearing skeleton and monarch butterfly costumes. In 2008, UNESCO designated Día de los Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which it defines as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.”
When Mexico’s government established the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve during the 1980s, it did so on lands that belonged to citizens of local communities known as “ejidos.” These included those inhabited by Indigenous communities such as the central Mexican Otomi and Mazahua peoples that rely on the forests for timber, plants used for medicines and mushrooms. By the mid-1990s, poverty in local communities was widespread and illegal logging became rampant in and around the reserve.
In 1997, Robert L. Small, a former public official from Oakland, California, initiated the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project to grow thousands of oyamel fir samplings. The trees were intended as a source of timber and income for families displaced by the reserve. According to a 1998 article in the New York Times, residents who were no longer living in the reserve were initially hesitant to accept the saplings for fear that Mexico’s government also would take away their new land. In time, however, the project gained traction and ultimately blossomed into a widescale replanting effort within the boundaries of the reserve.
Eduardo Rendón-Salinas, the director of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Program of World Wildlife Fund-Mexico, has been monitoring the overwintering monarch population for 30 years. He emphasized that working with Indigenous communities was crucial to saving the insect. He said, “The conservation of an emblematic species like the monarch can’t be done without conservation of its ecosystems and interactions with the owners of its territory.” He said he is “conserving biodiversity to conserve humans,” a philosophy reflected in many Indigenous cultures.
World Wildlife Fund provides financial support for dozens of tree nurseries that in turn provide a source of income for growers and planters. For many residents living within or adjacent to the monarch reserves today, raising and replanting oyamel fir saplings has become part of their daily lives.
J. Carmen Martinez Colin is a farmer and president of the Cerro Prieto ejido located near the Sierra Chincua monarch roost about 12 miles north of El Rosario. He has been fascinated with the butterflies since his childhood. During outings, his family would often encounter the roosting butterflies in the high-altitude forests. “We saw that they were there for a while and then they left, [reappearing] the following year,” said Martinez Colin. “What we didn’t know was where they came from and where they were going.”
Today, he has dedicated his life to following in the footsteps of his parents, caring for the forest in which he was raised. His nursery grows oyamel firs as well as other trees and plants native to the region for planting within the community and the reserve. He said, this has generated “jobs for the ‘ejidatarios’ [cooperative farmers], and most importantly, contributes to conserving the habitat of the monarch butterfly in our sanctuary of Sierra Chincua in the Municipality of Angangueo.”
The butterflies that come to roost in the trees annually attract hundreds of thousands of tourists who also contribute to the local economy by purchasing lodging, food and gifts. Tourism has become a source of not only income but connection with others beyond the communities who appreciate the monarchs. “It is a great joy [that] tourists from all over the world visit us,” said Martinez Colin. “It gives the ejido an opportunity to obtain an economic, secure way of living without having to exploit our forests. In addition, we can offer local food as well as the crafts of the ejido in the small stalls, which gives [us] the opportunity to learn about the customs of other people [who visit us].”
While reforestation has had many benefits for local communities and the butterflies, some residents still feel the loss of the forests’ resources. This has led to illegal logging in some areas and the development of a complex political network organized around the illegal extraction of wood. By 2008, nearly half of the entire reserve had been illegally logged despite efforts by conservationists to curb deforestation.
With Mexican authorities overwhelmed by their own fight against organized crime, some Indigenous community members have formed their own patrols to guard the forest against illegal logging, fires and pest insect infestations. Yet the rise in crime makes attempts to protect the forest increasingly dangerous. Local communities have reported being extorted by cartels that have begun bringing drugs into the reserve and charging steep prices for “protection” of farmers’ avocado crops in exchange for the freedom to sell methamphetamines to locals and develop new orchards in areas reserved for overwintering monarchs. In 2020, Homero Gómez González, a renowned conservationist and former manager of the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, along with tour guide Raúl Hernández Romero were each found dead in locations within the vicinity of El Rosario.
“We inherited this forest from the old ejidatarios, and we must leave it to those who come after us,” said Jose Mondragón Contreras, a resident of the San Juan ejido in the Guanajuato municipality. He is a member of a local community-led surveillance brigade that is attempting to protect 628 acres. “The forest is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year,” he said. “We have an obligation to continue preserving it. … That is why we are here and will continue to be here.”
Despite the population of the migratory monarch butterfly being much lower today than what it was in decades past, many conservationists still have hope for the insect’s future. A 2023 World Wildlife Fund report shows that although fires and drought are now also impacting the reserve, illegal logging at its core has decreased significantly in recent years. In North America, the insect’s habitat is still being devastated by agriculture and development, but massive campaigns in the past decade to plant milkweed plants and restore grasslands may have helped give it a fighting chance. The monarch’s population decline has slowed since 2014, so in September, the IUCN reconsidered its decision and changed the status of the migratory monarch’s status from endangered to vulnerable.
For Eduardo Rendón-Salinas, the monarch’s return to Mexico each year is like receiving a “precious food for the soul that you’ve been hungering for,” he said. “Their arrival means we can continue with our conservation efforts and work toward preserving a healthy planet for humans and all other species. It means that our work matters. … We are leaving a legacy for our descendants.”