November 29, 2014. Mexico. It’s finally true. I’m on the way to that mythical place, the alpine forest that, from time immemorial, has been welcoming millions of monarch butterflies from eastern North America.
A long-awaited trip
For over seven years now I’ve been responsible for Insectarium projects having to do with the monarch, and been fascinated by the insect. But I’m hardly the only one who’s flipped over that orange-colored butterfly.
Headed for the hills
Invited by two friends and colleagues, and after a few buses and a four-hour drive, here we are in the village of Angangueo (Michoacán province), the entryway to the El Rosario Biosphere Reserve. We dump our luggage in our room and find a ride for the ten kilometers or so of county road between us and the Reserve. Beside themselves with excitement, the three biologists from Montreal just can’t wait anymore. Monarcas, aquí estamos!
There they are!
At the Reserve we’re greeted by José Carmen, a resident turned guide. He comes with us to the wintering site, for our safety and the monarchs’. Unlike most other guides, José Carmen doesn’t talk much. He climbs slowly, used to doing this exercise a number of times a day. He’s a shy man, but proud. You have to see his eyes light up when he sees how happy we are. Because, believe it, there are monarchs here!
We’ve been walking for 40 minutes when we come out on a clearing, El valle de los conejos – Rabbit Valley. The landscape is magical. A few steps further on we discover a stream of clear water running down the mountain, and as it flows, dozens and dozens of monarchs having a drink! The emotion is almost too much. We look at one another without saying a word. The monarchs are there. The sun is shining. A wonderful moment shared.
José Carmen waves at us to keep going. Then he stops and puts a finger to his lips to ask for quiet, and points into the distance. And there it is. It’s no longer a beautiful photo in a magazine. There are thousands –no, millions – of fragile butterflies packed together on the branches of the oyamel firs, which droop under their weight. It feels like a cathedral. The most beautiful of all cathedrals, the one built by nature. It’s hard to hold back tears…
A fragile wonder
Back in Montreal, I realize how lucky I was to have seen one of the world’s most impressive natural spectacles. But despite my sense of wonder, the Mexicans had reminded me just how much this annual rendezvous is only a pale reflection of what it was before. We learned last month that the monarch population had gone up 69 percent compared to the year before. But that’s still much lower than it should be if the butterflies are to survive. The monarch needs us…