Saturday, February 26, 2005

M17 Reserva de las Mariposas Monarcas

I am heading out on my latest adventure but I can’t find a published bus schedule, so I just go to the bus station and try my luck. Terminal Poiniente services the western part of Mexico. It’s main hall is bigger than Grand Central’s. It’s surrounded by slums on a hill packed with tiny houses built one on top of the other on top of the next. It’s just three subway stops away from my house, but I never knew it existed.

I arrive at the station and quickly do a walk-through finding the one bus line servicing my destination in Michocan State.

Who needs “Google” when you can just show up?

I am on my way to Angangueo, a remote, former mining town crammed into a box canyon in the mountains of Michocan State. Its current claim to fame is its proximity to the Reserva de las Mariposas Monarchas, or Monarch Butterfly reserve.

When I arrive at the town, there are only a couple of hotels, hostels and restaurants. It barely caters to tourists but in doing so (or rather in not doing so), it maintains its unique character to a greater extent than most towns in the guide book.

It has a tiny town square where couples kiss, kids play and folks gather. There is no cafĂ© (argh!), but there are two huge churches. I would have thought everyone would be here Sunday morning but alas, it’s a market day and they are to be found in the one giant market in town. There I spy the mango-sized avocados, skinned chickens hanging upside down, legs of beef being stored without refrigeration, vegetables and spices galore. Everything in town is within walking distance and life here seems no different than what it must have been like 100 years ago.

They’ve preserved it perfectly and they weren’t even trying.

I wish the same could be said for the Monarch Butterflies. In fact, it seems like the opposite is happening. They are trying to preserve them, but this year marked the appearance of the fewest butterflies on record since they’ve been keeping records.

See “Chain Saw Thins Flocks of Migrants on Gold Wings”, New York Times (March 14, 2005): (registration required)

At the hostel, I meet two nice German women, Anne and Anna. We speak in Spanish, though I suspect they speak English. Along with some Brit expats, we hire a 70’s vintage Suburban to takes us up an additional thousand meters to the El Rosario Reserve.

Michoacan is the monarch butterfly mother ship. Monarchs hailing from the US and Canada, concentrate in the Oyamel fir forests here to ride out the winter mating. Their offspring will travel north the US and Canada, mate, die and the subsequent offspring will somehow find their way back here a generation or two since their fore-butterflies left. This migration is unique in the world is consider “an endangered phenomenon”.

And endangered it is. Monarchs are being pinned down in a two front war and are dying in droves both due to climatic conditions and due to the interference of man.

Here in Mexico, they are threatened by deforestation due to illegal logging. I actually shuttered to think when I saw trucks hauling fallen tree trunks leaving Angangueo. Despite the efforts of conservationists, economic pressures on the local population are such that it is almost impossible to enforce laws against logging or provide an economically viable alternative such as tourism. In deed, none of my Mexican colleagues had even been to the reserve and fewer still Americans and other tourists make the trip here.

Satellite imagery shows the shrinking Monarch habitat over the past 30 years:

The picture is tragic.

States-side and in Canada, butterflies are threatened by greater use of herbicides due to the increased usage of genetically modified corn. This allows farmers to kill bad weeds, but in turn kills good weeds like milkweed that the butterflies feed on.

Progress yet again solves one problem and creates another.

What you can do?

Actually, a lot. First, consider that in a market economy a dollar is the equivalent to a vote in a democracy. Be aware of what types of wood you purchase when you buy furniture. Don’t buy anything if you don’t know where it came from. Where possible, choose organic foods over those grown chemically or through genetically modified processes. I firmly believe a dollar is an economic vote signaling support for sustainable alternatives.

You can also donate to the World Wildlife Fund:

But better still, you could consider planting flowers and milkweed to attract and provide a much needed monarch habitat. And when you garden, chose native plant species over those that simply look pretty.

If you’re interested in reading more, there’s a lot out there including much reprinted online from the New York Times:

Other links:

Our Suburban deposits us near the top of a 3,000 meter mountain and we hike 20 minutes to the top to view the butterflies. It’s a cold morning, and they’re clustered on the trunks of the massive and beautiful Oyamel trees. They look like something akin to giant heaps of moss, not insects. We try to wait them out hoping they’ll take flight and blanket the skies as we’ve been told. But alas, it stays cloudy and only a few brave butterflies take flight. The English bloke lets me look through his telephoto lens and it’s amazing to see the butterflies up close.

They never come out in full effect, but it’s nice just to see them on this leg of their journey.

More pictures here: