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Where the Monarchs Hang in Mexico

The Jade Green Forests of Michoacan


My friend Rosty is afraid of butterflies. He insists that these not only beautiful, but also quite innocuous creatures make him feel unsafe when they fly around him, particularly around his face. “My fear comes from the time I was a kid, when a huge moth - the type we don’t see around anymore - was flying on my face and I was unable to get away from it,” he explained. All his life he’s been missing the opportunity to see the monarch butterflies in their natural habitat. He’s missed a lot.

Allow me to explain. Here in Goleta, as most know, we have a monarch sanctuary, officially known as the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, on the Ellwood Mesa, close to the bluffs. I feel a particular attachment to these royal - by their name and by their rich appearance - insects. There’s a connection between them and me. They call Goleta home, as I do, and they like to travel to Mexico as well. I do this every year, but they are not as lucky. They make one round trip only. They leave during the fall and come back up during the spring. It is their “children’s grandchildren” that go south the following fall.

Millions and millions of monarchs from the central and eastern Canadian provinces and the eastern and midwestern United States embark in an extraordinary effort, migrating to Mexico just as the California ones do. For years it was a mystery where these colorful beings went and where they ended their trip. The scientific community knew that they went to Mexico, but the exact hideouts continued to be a secret known only to local villagers and landowners.

In 1975, after a serious tagging endeavor on the part of researchers and amateur observers, their arrival sites were revealed. Here’s what we know now about the monarch’s journey:

The monarchs leave during mid- to late September, continuing until mid-November. They start the trip southward individually, but gather at points along the migration route to rest, feed, and drink. Scientists estimate that the California monarchs are now only about 5 percent of the overall worldwide monarch population.

We still don’t know how these fragile animals get oriented or how they survive such a prolonged trip. Their arrival is an amazing sight. In massive butterfly clouds, they sweep up into the forest located in the mountain ranges of the Mexican state of Michoacan, arriving in November through early December. Some of their main overwintering locations are: Altamirano, Sierra Chincua, El Rosario, Chivati-Huacal, Cerro Pelon, San Andres, Mil Cumbres, La Mesa, Lomas de Aparicio, Piedra Herrada, Oxtotilpan, and Palomas.

After these locations were made public, a presidential decree in Mexico established in 1986 the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve. This consisted of 60 square miles of protected forest. In the year 2000, with a new presidential decree, the reserve was expanded, creating a protected corridor of 216 square miles. Of the seven sanctuaries mentioned, only two are open to the public: El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.

According to what researchers tell us, the butterflies have chosen these sites - located just a few hours from Mexico City, and almost 10,000 feet above sea level - because the oyamel firs and other nearby trees, streams, underbrush, and fog combine to form the perfect natural ecosystem for them. I would add that they might have also chosen these paradisiacal enclaves because they are some of the most beautiful places that human or animal eye has ever seen. These locations surround the legendary Patzcuaro Lake and make up an intense jade green, intricate forest. No wonder the little insects make an extra effort to get to such places.

If you are a nature lover, I encourage you to travel to Mexico and explore the marvelous Biosphere Reserve. You should be prepared to find butterflies by the millions flying or lying around you on the trees, on the bushes, even on the ground. The grandness of the place and its beauty is breathtaking, and it is also a fabulous reminder of how our earth supports all kinds of life, no matter how large or minuscule it may be, if we’re willing to protect its resources.

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