Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To protect the glorious monarch

Mexico invests millions to protect spectacular migratory butterflies

— Photo: AP

BEAUTY GALORE: Thousands of monarch butterflies hang from a tree branch at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the central Mexican town of Cerro Prieto.

CERRO PRIETO: Mexico has announced a plan to pump pesos into a monarch butterfly reserve to boost tourism and create jobs in an impoverished area where illegal logging threatens the monarch’s habitat.

The 50-million peso (about Rs. 18. 4 crores) plan will buy equipment and advertising for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 50,180-hectare wooded park in Mexico’s Michoacan State, where clouds of orange- and black-winged butterflies nest each winter after flying south all the way from Canada and the U.S.

“It is possible to take care of the environment and at the same time promote development,” President Felipe Calderon said at a ceremony to celebrate the monarchs’ arrival.

Calderon’s administration has boosted efforts to protect the environment, promoting plans to combat global warming and plant 250 million trees across the country this year. But in a developing country plagued by pollution and spotty regulation, progress is slow.

Monarch butterflies have become an ecological symbol most Mexicans can rally around — they adorn licence plates in Michoacan, Calderon’s native state. The police even stand guard along some highways there, slowing cars that might hit the butterflies as they fly in swarms across the road.

Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico program, applauded Calderon’s plan. “This is the longest migration of all insects, a unique phenomenon and a natural wonder and Mexico has the biggest responsibility to protect them because they come here to hibernate,” he said.

The butterfly reserve, which in addition to the funds announced Sunday receives 400 million pesos in government funding a year, is patrolled by park rangers who roam the area armed with assault rifles, searching for armed gangs of illegal loggers.

Unauthorised logging threatens to the monarch’s habitat, which requires leafy foliage to protect the insects from rain and cold.

“By even taking a single tree out near the butterfly colony, you allow heat to escape from the forest, and that then jeopardises the butterflies,” said Lincoln Brower, a Professor of Zoology at the University of Florida and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. Having who has studied the monarchs for 52 years, described the Michoacan nesting grounds as “the Mecca of the whole insect world.”

The monarch butterfly — found in Mexico, Canada, the U.S., most of South America and parts of Australia and New Zealand — does not appear on any endangered species list. But its disappearing habitat threatens a delicate migratory route that has spanned two continents and 2.6 million sq km for some 10,000 years.

Each September, the butterflies begin a 5,470-km journey from the forests of eastern Canada and parts of the U.S. to the central Mexican mountains. The voyage is considered an aesthetic and scientific wonder.

They return north in late March, where they breed and cycle through as many as five generations before heading south again the next year. Scientists say the monarchs are genetically programmed to return to Mexico, where they settle in the same mountains their ancestors inhabited the year before.

Territory

Sometimes, they return to the very same trees — probably because previous monarchs have marked the area in ways scientists don’t yet understand, Professor Brower said.

Progress has been made protecting the butterflies’ home in Mexico, where they have become a tourist attraction and source of pride — and where

The World Wildlife Fund and Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation reported a 48 per cent drop in illegal logging this year. “We’re gaining ground in that fight,” Mr. Calderon said. — AP

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