Thu, Feb 13, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Fear in Mexico as twin deaths expose threat to monarch butterflies and their defenders

The apparent murders of two men known for promoting conservation of famed monarch butterfly reserves have drawn attention to a troubling tangle of disputes, resentments, illegal logging and violence roiling Michoacan state

By David Agren and Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian, OCAMPO, Mexico

The oyamel firs preferred by monarchs in Mexico are being stressed by rising temperatures and drought, with predictions the trees would be virtually wiped out by the end of the century.

Global heating is also reducing the viability of milkweed, the sole plant where the monarch reproduces, in the US and Canada.

This trend is set to restrict the butterflies to isolated pockets and end their epic migration to Mexico, a journey that can stretch for more than 4,800km.

A separate monarch migration, which takes butterflies to the warmth of coastal California, has shrunk from millions of insects in the 1980s to fewer than 30,000 individuals now.

“It’s so obvious that it’s painful,” said Orley Taylor, a biologist and cofounder of Monarch Watch, a group of US volunteers focused on studying and conserving the species. “Within 30 years or so we probably won’t be talking about the monarch migration. We risk losing something very special indeed.”

The demise of the overwintering monarchs would send an economic, as well as cultural, shock through central Mexico, although there are currently more pressing concerns in a region beset by crime and few economic opportunities.

“People are all for protecting the butterflies, but people have to have the necessities to survive,” said Father Martin Cruz Morales, a local priest, on a break from a community lunch of tacos and aguas frescas to celebrate the anniversary of a colleague’s ordination.

In El Rosario last week, Homero Gomerz’s friends and family packed a billiard hall — emblazoned with the image of the cartoon character Homer Simpson — to pray the novena, or nine days of prayer.

Over pastries and hot cups of fruit punch, Amado Gomez remembered his brother, a former logger, as an ambitious, but often altruistic man, who graduated from Mexico’s premier agricultural university and mostly worked in government until launching his activism in favor of the monarch butterflies.

Homero Gomez led tree-planting initiatives in El Rosario. He also helped organize patrols to protect the forests; teams of 10 persons still head out day and night into the hills to guard against incursions from illegal logging — something that locals say has not occurred in the butterfly reserve for at least two years.

“They know that people are organized here, and know that it’s difficult to cut down a tree and escape,” Amado Gomez said. “Nobody trusts the local police so they do [security] themselves with sticks, with guns, with whatever they can use themselves.”

EFFECT ON TOURISM

Altizer said that she did not think the reserve was too dangerous to visit, adding that tourism and conservation efforts should continue as before.

“El Rosario has so much to offer tourists, it’s right in the core of the biosphere reserve,” Altizer said. “If you think any place should be safe for monarchs and people it should be there, which makes this shocking. It makes me wonder if this will deter tourists from going there in the future. It sends a worrying message.”

She said scientists have long been advised to be cautious in the region, to not drive around at night and to avoid certain areas.

A vehicle owned by the conservation charity WWF had to cover its logo up on a previous visit due to fears of attack.

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