Ecocide in Cancún: mangroves destroyed overnight

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Jan 202016
 

Environmentalists are denouncing the recent overnight destruction of mangroves in the Malecón Tajamar area of Cancún. Malecón Tajamar is a tourist complex with infrastructure financed by Mexico’s federal tourism development agency Fonatur, which has form when it comes to environmental destruction. (See, for example, Conflict at Cabo Pulmo: mass tourism meets ecotourism.)

Development or Environment?

Development or Environment?

Mexico is one of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of mangroves, with between 600,000 and 900,000 hectares of them in total. (For details about why this range of values is so large, see How fast are mangroves disappearing in Mexico?) To prevent further destruction Mexico enacted federal legislation in 2007 designed to protect existing mangroves.

Credit: Adriana Varillas, El Universal

Credit: Adriana Varillas, El Universal

Despite this, news reports indicate that heavy equipment, protected by armed police, moved in to Malecón Tajamar on 16 January 2016 and proceeded to destroyed 57 hectares (140 acres) of mangroves overnight. This mangrove swamp had been under threat for some time, but the activist movement “Salvemos Manglar Tajamar” had gained considerable public support and managed to bring a temporary halt to further development work in the area.

Greenpeace México alleges that Fonatur falsified environmental assessments, and even denied that any mangroves existed at Malecón Tajamar. According to Greenpeace, municipal, state and federal authorities colluded to ensure that the mangroves would be destroyed and that construction of the tourist complex could continue.

Activists claim that the distinctive and ecologically-important mangrove habitat was home to crocodiles, iguanas, birds and snakes, and that the ecosystem services (fishing, coastal protection, habitat for other species, carbon sequestration, etc) provided by a healthy mangrove swamp outweighed all other options. (For more details, see How valuable are Mexico’s mangrove swamps?)

Greenpeace México not only condemned the destruction of mangroves but called for an immediate halt to work in the area pending a full and open discussion with all stakeholders. They believe that the mangroves could possibly reestablish themselves in time if the area is left untouched.

Work to infill the area cleared of mangroves has now been suspended while animal experts try to rescue, and relocate, as many of the animals who survived the initial disturbance as possible. In theory, Fonatur and the federal Environmental Secreatariat were obligated to ensure that developers had an adequate plan in place, prior to clearance, to relocate all animals, in line with the initial environmental impact report approved in 2005.

Another NGO, Defensores del Manglar, has announced it will submit a formal complaint about recent events at Malecón Tajamar to the headquarters of the Ramsar Convention in Switzerland. The Ramsar Convention, to which Mexico is a signatory, is an international accord for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Defensores del Manglar claims that Malecón Tajamar is protected under the Convention, even though the area does not appear to be specifically included on this list of Mexico’s 140+ Ramsar sites.

Geo-Mexico joins with Greenpeace Mexico and Defensores del Manglar in deploring the destruction of Mexico’s remaining mangroves and will continue to publicize cases where developer greed results in irreversible environmental damage.

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The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas

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Jan 182016
 

The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve covers 119,177 hectares in the southern state of Chiapas, in the municipalities of Acacoyagua, Angel Albino Corzo, La Concordia, Mapastepec, Villa Corzo, Pijijiapan and Siltepec. The reserve ranges in elevation from 450 meters above sea level to 2550 meters (8370 ft).

El Triunfo is part of the mountain range known as Sierra Madre de Chiapas in the southern part of the state. It straddles the continental drainage divide. Short rivers on one side flow to the Pacific Ocean. The rivers on the other side of the divide are the start of one branch of the mighty Grijalva-Usumacinta River (Mexico’s largest river in terms of discharge) which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

el-triunfo

The El Triunfo reserve was first established in 1990. In 1993, it was officially designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the MAB-UNESCO program.

El Triunfo has numerous plants and animals. Its vegetation, representative of several distinct ecosystems, includes evergreen tropical humid forest; mountain rainforest; tropical deciduous rainforest; pine-oak forest; and evergreen cloud forest. On Cerro Ovando alone, about 800 different species of plants have been recorded.

mapchiapas

Map of Chiapas. Click here for interactive map of Chiapas on Mexconnect.com; all rights reserved

Threatened mammalian species found in the reserve include Geoffroy’s spider monkey, margay, the tapir (Tapirus bairdii), jaguar (Panthera onca) and puma. Unfortunately, this means that this is a favored area for wildlife hunters, poachers and traffickers.

The bird fauna is especially distinctive. The reserve is one of the relatively few places in Mexico where ornithologists have the chance to find the horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus), resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), cabanis’ tanager (Tangara cabanisi), azure-ramped tanager and great curassau. The resplendent quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas, and its feathers were highly prized in pre-Columbian times.

This BBC video is an outstanding visual introduction to the Reserve:

As is the case for other Biosphere Reserves, local people are allowed to live and work in the El Triunfo Reserve. The core area (25,719 hectares) is restricted to conservation and research only, but the buffer/transition areas (93,458 ha) are home to about 12,000 people. El Triunfo is also on the migration route of Guatemalan Indians entering Chiapas either to work (seasonally) on coffee plantations or as the first stage of their journey further north. This floating population is trickier to quantify.

The area was important historically for the production and trade of items such as cacao, quetzal feathers, jade and copal resin. In the 17th century, the population grew rapidly in this region with the establishment of plantations, and later cattle ranches. Coffee was introduced at the end of the 19th century and quickly became the dominant cash crop for most small landowners. Environmental damage, mainly from clearance and cattle ranching, became a major problem, but it was not until the 1970s and pioneering work of Dr. Miguel Alvarez del Toro that any restrictions were placed on land use.

Today, the main economic activities within the buffer areas of the reserve are agriculture (coffee, corn), the collection of Chamaedorea palms, trade, construction and cattle raising.

Several NGOs are working with farmers in the buffer zone to improve their livelihoods and ensure that farming can be carried out sustainably and still support the existing population. For a lively introduction to this topic, try (Co-operative) Value Added on the blog Small Farmers. Big Change. As they say, “a green and more just food system starts with small farmers”.

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Latest additions to Mexico’s Protected Natural Areas

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Jul 202015
 

Alejandro del Mazo Maza, head of Mexico’s Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Áreas Naturales Protegidas), says that the formal decrees for seven additional PNAs (Protected Natural Areas) will be published shortly. In some cases, the decrees apply to areas whose status as protected areas was first announced months or even years ago.

The seven new additions are in the north and northwest regions of the country:

Mexico currently has 177 PNAs (in various categories), and the new additions bring that total to 184.

In addition, preparatory studies are underway to establish two additional biosphere reserves, for the Mexican Caribbean and the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés).

Mexico's Protected Areas (Gallina, 2012)

Mexico’s Protected Areas (Gallina, 2012)

The Commission of PNAs is working hard to complete formal management plans for every PNA – environmental, social and economic issues. At present, only 97 of the 177 PNAs have such plans in place, with the latest plans published only weeks ago for:

For example, the management program for the whale shark reserve authorizes a maximum of 160 whale-watching boats in an effort to ensure sustainability.

Source of Map:

Sonia Gallina, 2012. “Is Sustainablity Possible in Protected Areas in Mexico? Deer as an Example of a Renewable Resource.” Sustainability 2012, 4 (10), 2366-2376

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Community-based ecotourism in La Ventanilla, Oaxaca: success or failure?

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Jun 182015
 

Ecotourism at La Ventanilla on the coast of Oaxaca, a small community of about 100 inhabitants, located between the beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel, began more than twenty years ago. It is based on trips run by local guides through the mangroves lining a lagoon on the Tonameca River; the area’s wildlife includes iguanas, birds, crocodiles and sea turtles.

The main local cooperative that conducts tours is called Servicio Ecoturisticos de La Ventanilla (La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services). Income from its tours supports reforestation and other ecological projects, including a greenhouse for mangrove reforestation and a nursery to hatch and raise crocodiles for release on Uma Island, in the lagoon. A breakaway co-operative, Cooperativa Lagarto Real, also runs some local excursions, though its profits do not contribute to local conservation efforts.

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

Most visitors to La Ventanilla come only for the day; the small local community offers only limited services or accommodations for tourists. The community of La Ventanilla is often held up as a shining example of how a well-implemented “assistive conservation” ecotourism approach can combine environmental conservation with economic sustainability, while enhancing the local quality of life.

But is this apparent success story quite as idyllic as usually portrayed in the mainstream press? Dr. David Vargas-del-Río, a researcher at ITESO in Guadalajara, sets out to explore this question in his recent article, “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, published in the December 2014 issue of The Geographical Journal. The article is based on Vargas-del-Río’s doctorate thesis at the UPC University, Barcelona.

As Vargas-del-Río explains, “The assistive conservation approach includes strategies for conserving community-based lands based on a complex combination of traditional and modern scientific knowledge. It enjoys broad legitimacy and seems promising for conserving territories with autochthonous populations. However, as a novel strategy, it has been applied mostly to societies and environments that are fragile in conservationist terms.”

The author explores how there has been a gradual shift in the protection of natural areas from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’ models of environmental management, before turning to his case-study of La Ventanilla. La Ventanilla lends itself to such a case study since an assistive conservation approach was first implemented there more than twenty years ago, More than sufficient time to allow for some follow-up evaluation. His eventual conclusion is that while assistive conservation approaches sound good in theory, they may, over time, make local ecologies “more vulnerable to social and environmental degradation, especially as traditional management institutions once responsible for ecological integrity become obsolete”.

In reviewing the background literature, Vargas-del-Río asserts that there are “three broad critical currents” of criticism of the assistive conservation approach. These include the potential adverse impacts of utilizing protected areas for tourism. The provision of attractions, installations and other services, leads to “new dynamics, impacts and transformations” in terms of tourism providers, and may result in “competition between local actors and powerful tourism agents, both conventional and emergent.” Potential issues include changes in local consumption and behavior patterns, and the view that nature and local culture are commodities.

Just how was this manifested in the context of La Ventanilla?

Initial effects of the assistive conservation approach in La Ventanilla were positive. Restrictions were placed, and enforced, on “activities considered ‘disruptive’; that is, hunting, selling local species, harvesting turtle eggs, and felling mangrove trees…”The cooperative soon won praise for its environmental responsibility and received more funds from the government to conduct volunteer conservation projects, including reforestation in the mangroves, a deer reserve, a turtle egg nursery, and areas for iguanas, among other initiatives. Hence, it continued to receive financial and moral power which it exercised over the rest of the population, while promoting conservation and tourism over traditional uses.”

Following extensive fieldwork in the community, Vargas-del-Río found, “a marked tendency towards spatial segregation, social fragmentation, inequality and speculation; phenomena that have emerged as a direct result of the ‘conservation’ initiative with its nature-based tourism activities and imposed environmental restrictions.”The La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services Cooperative (CSELV) is “controlled by six local leaders who own the lands where the cooperative’s main assets are located, handle all accounts, and elaborate support and funding applications.” Other members of the co-operative are “simple wage earners”.

Inequality triggered by the project led to segregation, in terms of housing quality, in the central area of the community. A group of nine disgruntled members of the initial co-operative, broke away in 2004 and founded a second co-operative, Lagarto Real. They “disregarded the management plan”, “sabotaged some conservation and ecotourism initiatives undertaken in this sub-zone, and set up restaurants, shops and camping sites of their own that lacked the ‘green’ image that others were marketing.” The growth of ecotourism has led to land speculation, including a controversy over the construction and (illegal) sale of a small hotel built on communal property.

The island of Uma is controlled by the original co-operative and no longer accessible for traditional activities such as agriculture. There has been a dramatic shift in economic activities. “Agriculture and fishing are now practiced by just 7% of inhabitants and represent an important source of income for only 10.7% of households. In contrast, tourism-related activities occupy 34.7% of the people, represent 70.1% of the economically active population, and are the main source of income for 67.9% of households.”

Vargas-del-Río concludes that previous assessments failed “to take into account slow, gradual changes”. One outcome has been “a higher risk of land degradation in social and environmental terms as the local society fragments, inequality increases, more actors (external and local) strive to profit from the territory, and regulation becomes more difficult.”

In conclusion, “assistive approaches modify ways of approaching nature, restrict traditional uses in favour of tourism, weaken local management institutions and degrade environmental and social relations.” The assistive approach “undermines the cultural, economic and local environment while creating new spaces for consumption.”

Source:

David Vargas-del-Río, 2014. “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 180 #4 (December 2014) 377–391.

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Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change: Angangueo, Mexico

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Jun 042015
 

In 2015, the USGS published a series of satellite images of environmental change [no longer online] of the area around the town of Angangueo in the eastern part of the state of Michoacán (very close to the border with the State of México) and the mountainous hillsides covered in pine-fir forest where the migrating Monarch butterflies spend their winters.

The pine-fir forests are found at an elevation of around 3000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. The butterflies congregate in a small number of locations, forming massive clumps on the trees. Any major disturbance, such as a windstorm or excessive snow, can cause the loss of (literally) millions of Monarchs. The overwintering Monarchs need just the right range of temperatures. On the one hand, they must not be so cold that they freeze or are not warm enough to flutter in search of food and water. On the other hand, if it is too warm, they may burn through their energy reserves or need to replenish too much moisture. The canopy of the pine-fir forest provides some protection, but even a partial thinning of this canopy will change the microclimate beneath.

In this post, we will will take a quick look at the images of Chincua reserve. This reserve includes the location where overwintering congregations of Monarch butterflies were reported for the first time in the mid-1970s. This is one of the areas where conservationists fear that the pine-fir forest (appearing vibrant red in the images) may have suffered too much clearing and thinning, which may have altered the area’s microclimate and made it unsuitable for successful overwintering.

When looking at the images, bear in mind that:

    • Red signifies healthy vegetation.
    • Landsat images are always taken in mid-morning, so shaded northwest slopes look darker. Shadows can vary slightly from one month to the next.
    • The images show forest clearance, but do not reveal forest thinning. The consequences of forest thinning (the removal of individual trees) may be just as significant in the context of the annual Monarch butterfly migration.
Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011.

Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011. Click to enlarge.

In the 2000 image, the Chincua reserve shows some rashy gray areas just above and to the right of the center of the image. These gray areas are not visible on the 1986 image. This may be evidence of a fire, or some other kind of clearing. The 2011 image seems to indicate that the vegetation in that area has recovered, at least to some extent.

A truly detailed examination of these images is beyond the scope of this short post, but high-resolution images (which can be downloaded from the USGS site) will repay a closer study. See, for example, the satellite images of Pelon.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the Monarch as a species is not endangered. There is, indeed, a year-round population of Monarchs in central and western Mexico that is non-migratory owing to the ready availability of milkweed, the only plant on which female Monarchs lay their eggs, throughout the year. It is only the butterfly migration that is considered an “endangered phenomenon”, and all three countries involved (Canada, USA and Mexico) have now instituted programs to try to ensure its long-term success.

Satellite monitoring of the areas of importance to the Monarch butterfly should help identify the key areas on which conservation efforts need to be focused.

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Good news for Mexico’s little sea cow, the vaquita marina

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Mar 232015
 

Good news for Mexico’s “little sea cow”, the world’s smallest porpoise, known in Spanish as the vaquita marina, currently the most endangered cetacean in the world.

The federal government has approved a compensation plan designed to protect the vaquita marina, with a budget of 69 million dollars, spread over two years. Most of the funds will be used to pay 1,300 fishermen in San Felipe and Santa Clara in the upper Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) not to fish.

There are thought to be fewer than 100 vaquitas remaining in the wild. Banning fishing in the main area where the little sea cows are found will eliminate the loss of further vaquitas as bycatch.

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Besides paying compensation to fishermen in return for not fishing, some funds will be allocated to finance annual inspections and introduce surveillance drones to ensure compliance with the conservation plan and detect any illegal fishing. The unmanned drones will be managed by Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa).

Some funds will also go to research, with an emphasis on trying to develop a vaquita-safe shrimp net that can safely be used in the area.

Banning fishing for the 860 holders of fishing licenses in Santa Clara and the 494 licensed fishermen in San Felipe, may help the vaquita marina, but will bring some adverse consequences to the local economy since there no compensation is on offer for those workers, including many women, who are involved in fish processing and other parts of the production chain.

Not long enough

As Luis Fueyo, the head of Mexico’s National Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) has said in recent press interviews, the vaquita marina cannot possibly recover in two years because they only reproduce every two years and only 25 of those remaining are of reproducing age. Fueyo says that the plan needs to look ahead 20 to 30 years in order to create a viable population of 5,000 vaquita.

So, while a two year ban is nowhere near long enough to achieve any measurable increase in the vaquita marina population, it is a good first step in the right direction. Hopefully, the federal government will allocate additional funding in future years to ensure that the world does not lose this critically endangered porpoise.

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Rodrigo Medellin, Mexico’s Bat Man

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Feb 192015
 

Rodrigo Medellin, a Mexican expert on bats (Mexico’s Bat Man) was the winner of the 2012 Whitley Fund for Nature Gold Award for his on-going work to study, raise awareness and highlight the importance of Latin America’s bats. The award reflects Medellin’s outstanding contribution to nature conservation.

This short video narrated by Sir David Attenborough, summarizes Medellin’s work:

Medellin, an ecology professor who, among many other achievements, has found bat species previously thought extinct, was the subject of an episode in the 2014-2015 season of the BBC series Natural World. The documentary won the 2014 Panda Award for Best People and Nature Film.

As a child, Mexico’s Bat Man kept vampire bats in his bathroom and some of his own blood “in the fridge so that I could feed them every night”.

Little friend: Rodrigo with one of the Lesser Long Nosed Bats his hard work has helped to conserve

Rodrigo with a lesser long nosed bats Credit: Amy Cooper, BBC2.

Bats are more important to ecology, and Mexico’s economy, than you might think. For instance, the lesser long-nosed bat is the main pollinator of the agave plants from which tequila is produced. Medellin’s research has involved tracking and understanding the extraordinary migrations undertaken by bats such as the lesser long-nosed bat, which pollinates the agaves during its annual migration. (Worldwide, bats also propagate at least 500 other economically important night-flowering species).

The bats’ journey covers 1500 kilometers (almost 1000 miles) from southern Mexico to the Sonoran Desert straddling the Mexico-USA border, via the so-called ‘Nectar Corridor’, the coastal lowlands between the Western Sierra Madre and the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, in the desert region, the lesser long-nosed bat is responsible for pollinating the distinctive saguaro cactus (which is incapable of self-fertilization), the key to the whole Sonoran ecosystem.

Elsewhere, bats can be a tourist attraction, as at Bracken Cave, Texas, home to an estimated 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. in addition, fruit-eating bats help stimulate the regrowth of rainforests, by distributing five times more seeds per square meter than birds.

Medellin has devoted his life to ensuring the conservation of bats in Mexico and, fortunately for all tequila lovers, appears to have been successful. Because of his work, the Tequila Bat is now off the endangered species list. Over the past three decades, Medellin has campaigned tirelessly for people to appreciate the value and beauty of bats, creating a network of bat-friendly ‘safe caves’, and pioneering conservation techniques that are now being copied around the world.

Want to read more?

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How does Mexico’s water footprint compare to that of other countries?

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Oct 292014
 

In a previous post, we saw how Mexico is a major net importer of “virtual” water. In this post we take a closer look at Mexico’s water footprint. The data throughout this post come from The Water footprint of Mexico in the context of North America (pdf file).

Individual products each have their own water footprint in terms of the total amount of water involved in their production, processing and marketing. For example a single cup of coffee represents (on average) a water footprint of 140 liters. Other water footprints include:

  • A single letter-sized sheet of paper – 10 liters
  • Microchip – 32 liters
  • Pair of leather shoes – 8000 liters
  • Glass of milk 200 liters
  • Glass of wine 120 liters
  • Tomato 13 liters
  • Hamburger (150 gram) 2400 liters

From numbers like these, it is possible to calculate the water footprint for an individual consumer in a particular country, and also for an average consumer in each country.

How does the water footprint in Mexico compare to other countries?

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The graphic shows that Mexico’s total water footprint (all consumers) is 197,425 Hm³, of which 92% is agricultural, 3% industrial and 5% domestic. Only 57% of Mexico’s water footprint is internal, the remaining 43% is external (ie water used in other countries to make or produce items imported into Mexico). The average water footprint per person in Mexico comes to 5419 liters/day (or 1978 m³/year).

The global average water footprint (all countries, all consumers) in 2010 was 1,385 m³/y. However, some countries have much higher average water footprint/persons than others. For example, the average consumer in the USA has a water footprint of 2,842 m³/y, whereas in China and India the average water footprints are 1,071 and 1,089 m³/y respectively.

The water footprint of an average consumer worldwide  is primarily determined by their consumption of cereal products (contributes 27% to the average water footprint), followed by meat (22%) and milk products (7%).

It should be remembered that countries which heavily rely on foreign water resources may have significant impacts on water consumption and pollution elsewhere.

Full report:

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Are Monarch Butterflies in danger of extinction?

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Oct 182014
 

As a species, monarchs are native to North America, but subsequently island-hopped their way around the world—across the Pacific to Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, and across the Atlantic to Europe. In parts of Mexico, particularly in the area around Lake Chapala, there is a healthy population of non-migrating monarch butterflies; these butterflies can count on year-round access to milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that the species itself is in no danger of extinction.

However, what may be “endangered” is the annual migration of Monarch Butterflies to and from Mexico. This annual migration is categorized as an “endangered phenomenon” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Threats to the migration come from climatic change and extremes, as well as from the impacts of human activity. In some years, unusually cold snaps and hailstorms have caused the premature death of millions of butterflies, though, as yet, this has had little if any discernible effect on total monarch numbers. Human activity has greatly reduced the area of the monarchs’ natural overwintering habitats, in both California, for real estate developments, and in Michoacán, due to forest clearance for timber and agriculture. Farming activities in the US have also resulted in the loss of milkweed along the Monarchs’ migratory pathways. This loss may have far more serious consequences on the long-term viability of the annual migration. Without milkweed, the female Monarchs are unable to lay their eggs on a suitable host plant, and the Monarch caterpillars will never acquire their chemical defenses against predation.

The numbers of Monarchs overwintering in Mexico have varied greatly from one year to the next. The graph below, reproduced widely in the press, has been used as evidence that the numbers of migrating Monarchs are in sharp decline. A note of caution is needed, though, since the estimates of numbers used for the graph are based on the area of trees occupied by the butterflies, and not on a direct count (which is clearly impractical!)

Monarch-Trends-1994-2013

The challenge for researchers is to be certain that the density and architecture of trees is similar from one year to the next. If the trees are less densely grouped, for example, one year than the next, in the particular areas occupied by the butterflies, then the area the butterflies need will be correspondingly larger. The lower area in recent years could be at least partially explained by a higher tree density in the overwintering areas, allowing the same number of butterflies to co-exist in closer proximity to each other.

This is not to say that there is not cause for concern. According to the National University (UNAM)’s Environmental Geography Research Center, at current rates of deforestation, the area of overwintering sites for the Monarch butterflies could be reduced by 75% in the next 18 years, leaving just 12,000 ha of suitable habitat. The protected area, established in 2000, covers 560 square kilometers (56,000 ha. or 216 sq. mi) but includes land cleared for pasture, settlement and cultivation. Researcher José López García claims the reserve is losing 3% of its forest each year. He blames clearance and changes of land use more than illegal logging. The rate of forest clearance has been exacerbated by a rapid rise in the population of the El Rosario ejido. El Rosario is the gateway to the most-visited part of the reserve, attracting thousands of tourists annually. The ejido’s population rose by an average of 5.65%/year between 2005 and 2010.

What is Mexico doing about this?

The Mexican conservation strategies for the butterflies are designed to protect their overwintering habitat and provide alternative sources of revenue and employment for local campesinos who depend on the land and forest for their livelihood. After some doubtful years in the early 1980s, there is now a system of formally protected monarch butterfly reserves, and concerted conservation efforts to prevent further destruction of the monarchs’ unique overwintering habitat.

The modest entrance fees to Monarch Butterfly reserves help fund development projects in the local communities. There is a strict code of conduct for tourists to prevent noise, littering and straying from the well-marked paths.

While the new rules have undoubtedly had some success, it is still preferable to visit, if at all possible, during the week and not at the weekend when the reserves are at their crazily busiest.

On a quiet day,pausing to catch your breath in the peace of the forest as you climb the trail, you will then be just as surprised as I first was when you realize that the gentle swishing sound you can hear around you is not the sound of the wind blowing through the tree limbs but the sound caused by millions of tiny wings beating as the butterflies flutter about in the sky.

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Oct 112014
 

Most monarch butterflies never migrate, but one generation of the North American monarch population undertakes an annual, long distance migration, a journey without parallel in the insect world. Every winter, some one hundred million monarch butterflies fly south into Mexico from the U.S. and Canada. They congregate and spend the winter in a dozen localities high in the temperate pine and fir forests of the states of México and Michoacán.

Where do the Monarchs overwinter?

The exact sites where the butterflies overwinter were only found in the mid 1970s after a search of nearly forty years. Scientists are still unable to explain all the details of this enigmatic annual migration, but their unexpectedly sophisticated navigational ability seems to rely on an incredible innate accuracy in pinpointing their position by using their eyes and antennas to measure the angles of the sun’s rays, compensating for time of day, and ensuring they continue to fly in a southerly direction towards the state boundary separating Michoacán from the State of México.

How fast can they fly?

The tagging of butterflies has proven that they make the 2500 kilometer trip each way at an impressive average speed of 20 km/h, with maximum speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph). Monarchs don’t fly at night, partly because they need daylight to navigate and partly because they fly best when sunlight has warmed their wings, like miniature solar panels, raising their body temperatures some 10 to 15 degrees Celsius above ambient air temperatures.

The butterflies are energy-efficient flyers, making regular nectar stops along the way to refuel. One third of their dry body weight is energy-giving fat but far from losing weight on their exhausting journey south, they actually appear to gain it! There are still many mysteries about the monarchs but they certainly provide one of the most amazing natural spectacles to be seen anywhere on earth. Millions of orange butterflies, with black and white-spotted wings, whether flying overhead or, as on cooler days, clinging apparently lifeless to the grey-green fir trees in such numbers that the trees appear to be in blossom, are an absolutely unforgettable sight.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

The journey south

In September and October, as temperatures in the U.S. and Canada fall, and food supplies become scarce, the monarchs fly south in small groups. Some of these groups fly only as far as Florida or western California where they spend their winters in milder conditions. But many of the small groups from east of the Continental Divide eventually coalesce and fly much further south, as far as Mexico, arriving en masse in the state of Michoacán towards the end of November.

This migratory group is comprised of as many as 120 million individuals and spends the winter in semi-dormancy, on the pine and oyamel (sacred fir, Abies religiosa) trees found at elevation of about 3050 meters (10,000 feet) along Mexico’s central Volcanic Axis. Until spring comes, in March or April, these butterflies cling to the branches and trunks of the trees, enjoying temperatures between 10 and 16 degrees Celsius, protected from cold northerly winds. Their metabolism slows down in these low temperature, low oxygen conditions and they exhibit movement only on warm, sunny, days.

The generation that flies into Mexico does not mature sexually until the following spring. In February and March, the best months to see them, early spring sunlight begins to penetrate the groves of fir trees, temperatures begin to rise and the forest floor slowly comes alive with new plant growth. The butterflies, having successfully overwintered the worst weather, unfurl their wings and flutter about in search of food and water. As they regain their strength, so they become sexually mature and the mating process starts.

The journey north

After mating, the butterflies begin to leave the reserves, flying back towards the north. Five days later, in northern Mexico and the southern U.S., each female lays two to three hundred eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. They first check (by smell and touch) that no eggs have already been laid there, and then space their eggs in such a way so as to ensure that each larva that hatches two to three days later will have an adequate supply of food. The larvae grow quickly, changing their skins five times before becoming pupae. After a further two weeks, butterflies emerge, and fly northwards. Each generation of monarchs probably acquires a different chemical “blueprint”, based on the exact species of milkweed it eats, giving it the information it needs to know where to fly. Eventually, by April, the northernmost butterflies reach Canada.

No individual butterfly completes the entire 5000 kilometer round trip. Most of those that fly south die soon after mating in spring (with males often dying in the reserves and never starting their homeward trip), while those who head north cannot hope to survive long into the summer, when normal reproductive cycles, each lasting from four to six weeks, are reestablished.

The last generation of each summer, perhaps prompted by shorter days, soon departs on the next wave of mass migration to Mexico. Those from furthest north will cross the Great Lakes on their return in a single day’s flight, an impressive feat in its own right. They have been spotted flying south at heights up to 1500 meters and exploit thermals to gain height and save energy.

Where to see Monarch Butterflies

Several monarch reserves are open to the public each year. Each has its own distinctive character. Two of the most important reserves are close to the town of Angangueo. Sierra Chincua, north of the town, is the site where the first Canadian-tagged monarch was found in the mid 1970s. This is also where I first saw the butterflies, in 1980, while looking for a potential site for geography fieldwork. It was a serendipitous discovery, and led to me being mistaken for a BBC reporter, but that’s another story!

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

The most accessible reserve open to the public is El Rosario, south of Angangueo, where there are dozens of souvenir stalls and rustic snack stands—don’t miss sampling the delicious hand-made blue-corn tortillas. The narrow trails in the sanctuary, with information boards at regular intervals, wind steeply several hundred meters uphill, reaching a maximum altitude of 3050 meters. This altitude can cause some shortage of breath and air temperatures are generally low, so be sure to bring a sweater.

El Rosario can be reached from either Angangueo (steeper but more direct approach) or Ocampo. Anyone driving their own vehicle to El Rosario is advised to use the route via San Felipe (on Highway 15) and then Ocampo. From Ocampo any vehicle with adequate ground clearance, including the local taxis, can negotiate the fourteen kilometers to the monarch sanctuary parking lot.

The San Felipe-Ocampo junction on Highway 15 is marked by a line of fruit and soft-drink stalls, many of which in season sell delicious granadas (pomegranates). Also at this junction is an interesting sixteenth century church which, until as recently as 1995, had tombstones in its atrium, unusual in Mexico. Normally, the Spanish buried their dead as far away from the churchyard as possible, presumably to avoid the risk of disease.

Want to read more?

This post is based on chapter 36 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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