Monarchs fill the air and cluster densely on fir trees at the El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary in Michoacán México. Millions of butterflies arrived in their overwintering habitat this year. Although the official census won’t be released for a few months, early data indicate a huge increase compared to last year.
The estimated overwintering population size here this season is 207 percent larger than 2014 and occupies four times the area (over four acres). For monarchs this is encouraging news; it also is potentially good news for the El Rosario region’s human community now dependent on tourism income. Conserving these monarchs and their forest habitat requires that local incomes shift from logging, mining and other uses of the monarch’s mountain forest to ecotourism-based incomes.
El Rosario is one of eight monarch colonies protected by the UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in México, and is the largest of the five that are open to the public. Six additional colonies occur outside the Reserve. The Biosphere is located in the states of Mexico and Michoacán in central Mexico. It includes 138,379 acres of oak-pine-fir forest habitat but monarchs occupy only a fraction of the reserve, the rest is intended to protect the overwintering sites.
Although the monarchs were ten days late to their rendezvous this year due to hurricane Patricia and a cold spell in early November, Sanctuary Chairman Homero Gómez González* says this year’s population shows the benefits of the community’s commitment to end illegal logging and conserve the butterfly’s habitat. Community members planted over 210 thousand seedlings of white pine (Pinus pseudostrobus) and oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) last season. Butterflies primarily use the fir, but also use white pine although it is less common due to logging.
Of the 200 people who work to maintain the sanctuary, 87 are guides during butterfly season, 47 offer horse tours, and 60 sell handicrafts and food. Tourist-based work is important to the community because there is no other source of income now that nearly a thousand hectares (2,471 acres) are banned from logging and all other non-butterfly uses. Ten to 20 forest guards roam the sanctuary every day to prevent illegal logging and other destructive activities.
Inclusion of the forest habitat in the BioSphere Reserve doesn’t automatically provide funding for conservation or to local people who are now unable to use the lands as they have for generations. Gómez González noted that last year although 210 thousand trees were planted they "received not a single peso" so that all the work was the effort of ejido (a type of communal land cooperative) members.
For a magical vacation mingling with millions of monarchs, old forests, high mountains, and low prices, come to Michoacán in central México (see details below). Help the butterflies by visiting here so the humans who live nearby and caretake the sanctuary can shift their income base to ecotourism. They no longer log the mountain forest, but still depend on it for their income and survival.
How these extensive over-wintering colonies came to the attention of scientists is a fascinating story and not that old (1975) given the size and the intense interest among Lepidopterists to understand this phase of the monarch’s life cycle. Of course local people always knew; they just didn’t know anyone was searching for them.
Support millions of monarchs and thousands of local people by visiting El Rosario Monarch sanctuary in michoacán, México.
A basic guide to the sanctuary and access information is here.
EL ROSARIO, A SANCTUARY NEAR THE SMALL VILLAGES OF ANGANGUEO AND OCAMPO, IS AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE PLACE. . . . THE TWO VILLAGES ARE ABOUT 5 MILES APART, AND ARE JUST EAST OF CIUDAD HILDALGO, WHICH IS ABOUT 60 MILES EAST OF MORELIA. IT IS POSSIBLE TO REACH THIS AREA AS A DAY TRIP FROM MORELIA OR MEXICO CITY, BUT BECAUSE OF THE HIGH ALTITUDE, IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT VISITORS STAY IN THE AREA AT LEAST ONE NIGHT TO ACCLIMATE BEFORE VISITING THE SANCTUARY. THE VILLAGE OF ANGANGUEO IS AT 8,300 FEET AND THE BUTTERFLIES ARE FOUND AT NEARLY 11,000 FEET.
NOTE: From the El Rosario Welcome Center, YOU HIKE UP WELL-MAINTAINED TRAILS INTO THE FORESTED AREA WHERE THE BUTTERFLIES SPEND THEIR TIME. IT’S WORTH IT.
SANTUARIO EL ROSARIO WILL BE OPEN TO TOURISTS UNTIL 31 MARCH 2016, BUT AVOID THE TIME AROUND 16 FEB BECAUSE THE POPE IS VISITING AND TAKE MY WORD FOR IT, THAT’S A MESS. ADMISSION TO THE SANCTUARY IS 30 PESOS ($1.75 US) PER CHILD AND 45 PESOS ($2.62 US) PER ADULT.
A GOOGLE SATELLITE MAP OF EL ROSARIO AND SURROUNDING AREAS ALONG WITH LINKS TO TOURIST NEEDS LIKE CAR RENTALS AND HOTELS CAN BE FOUND HERE.
* Thanks to Homero Gómez González for El Rosario Sanctuary monarch information and use of his photos.