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Watch the Annual Monarch Butterfly Migration

The monarch butterfly is in decline, but hopes are high that tourists can boost their numbers. Animal Echo speaks to WWF expert Eduardo Rendon-Salinas to find out more


Photo by Erin Minuskin


The annual monarch butterfly migration is truly a sight to behold. Every year from September to October, up to 500,000 monarch butterflies begin an extraordinary journey from Southern Canada and the United States to overwintering sites in central Mexico, covering a staggering 3,000 miles. Naturally, the migration draws in thousands of tourists and is a boon for the local economy all along the way. Mexico in particular is a great place to see them when it comes to sheer numbers, and if you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, there is no better time to book it than now.

Animal Echo spoke to WWF-Mexico’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Program Director and Monarch Butterfly Expert, Eduardo Rendon-Salinas to find out more about visiting these incredible butterflies and why they are so important to the environment.


‘Monarch butterflies should be recognized as important pollinators because one of their fundamental activities during migration is feeding from nectar plants that they find in their path, simultaneously pollinating the plants,’ Rendon-Salinas explains. ‘Therefore, it is highly probable that monarchs are contributing to the structure and health of the terrestrial ecosystems they go through along their migration in North America. 


‘Furthermore, the presence of migratory monarchs is an indicator of the quality of forest ecosystems in their hibernation sites in Mexico, and in many other ecosystems along their migration and reproduction sites in the US and Canada. They could be considered an indicator of the impacts of climate change in all their habitats, based on the measurement of their ecological performance in each place. Consequently, they could also be a model of ecosystem-based adaptation to reduce the vulnerability of migratory butterflies and their habitats.’

Photo by Alex Guillaume 


However, in recent years experts have noticed a worrying decline in monarch numbers, which is largely due to habitat loss. Milkweed is essential to the monarchs, as it provides them with a place to lay their eggs and is a source of food for the caterpillars, but lately there is less of it available.


‘Indeed, the area occupied by hibernation colonies of the eastern migratory monarch butterfly is the second smallest in 30 years of systematic monitoring,’ says Rendon-Salinas. ‘This is an indicator that the population of this species is decreasing, despite great efforts made in the three countries where the eastern monarch migration occurs.


‘It is necessary for governments to fully comply with local legislation and establish public policies that reduce the use and impact of herbicides and insecticides in breeding sites along the migratory route. Land use changes in the migratory route must be reviewed to reduce the impact on monarch habitats. In addition, to confront climate change, identified and potential breeding and reproduction sites must be restored and conserved so that those sites provide the right conditions for migratory monarchs along their migration cycle.’  


Nature-lovers often express concerns about doing more harm than good and worry about having a negative impact on the very animals they travel to see. However, you’ll be pleased to learn that your trip may actually help the butterflies. In the mountain forests of central Mexico, their habitat is protected as this is where a large percentage of North American monarchs overwinter. In the early 2000s, locals cut down the forest inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to survive, but the conservation measures put in place mean that today, illegal logging is almost down to zero. The current goal is to increase eco-tourism as an alternative source of funds.

Photo by Skyler Ewing


‘In Mexico, tourism to the hibernating colonies should be encouraged, since it is proven that local communities benefit economically, thus increasing conservation and restoration capacities, as well as sustainable management of the forests of the region,’ says Rendon-Salinas. ‘Tourist visits are and should continue to be strictly supervised so that visitors and tourist service providers do not impact the butterfly colonies with their presence. Visitors should follow the instructions, such as not walking outside the pathways, follow your guide, don’t trash, keep your voice down when you are close to a butterfly colony, and please do not touch the butterflies or any other wildlife. Nature is there for us to appreciate and will be there for a long time if we take good care of it.


‘[Monarchs] are important also in Mexico because local communities that own forests where monarch colonies hibernate - inside and around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve - and that are open to the public, obtain significant economic benefits during the five months of hibernation. Additionally, forest restoration efforts take place where butterfly colonies are located, which has resulted in new employments for local communities dedicated to plant production, sustainable forest management and biodiversity conservation by the forest owners.’ 

If you love butterflies but a trip to Mexico is a little out of your price range, don’t worry as there is still plenty you can do to help.

‘[People can help by] producing and planting milkweed across spring and summer breeding sites in the US and Canada, which anyone can do,’ Rendon-Salinas concludes. ‘And in Mexico we need to reinforce reforestation efforts to restore the overwintering sites and provide better habitats for migrant butterflies.


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