Mexico spends millions to welcome insect migrants

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The Independent Online

A warmer welcome should soon be awaiting the millions of orange-and-black monarch butterflies which each year make their astonishing migration from the eastern United States and Canada to the fir-clad mountains of central Mexico. The tourist hordes that come to view them should see the change too.

The government of President Felipe Calderon is to boost spending at the nature reserve where the butterflies gather for winter by $4.6m (£2.2m) a year both to improve conditions for the insects – and their human admirers – and to step up efforts to combat rampant illegal logging.

Officials said that the additional funds for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which spans 124,000 acres of oyamel fir in Mr Calderon's native state of Michoacá*, will go towards such things as more tourism advertising and better equipment for the rangers who have to protect it.

Clouds of the insects converge on the area between late October and early November to nest through the winter before heading north again in the spring. The entire forest can seem to glow when the sunlight catches the colours of their wings.

But it is the journey they must make to get there that most captures the imagination. Using a navigation system that scientists do not fully understand, the monarchs travel up to thousands of miles from various points east of the Rocky Mountains. They often fly in groups, forming delicate ribbons in the sky and can cover as many as 100 miles in a single day. Scientists believe that the monarchs have been following the same migratory routes for more than 10,000 years.

Because the integrity of the reserve is so critical to their survival, anxiety has been rising that illegal logging in particular will one day threaten the long-term viability of the monarchs. The reserve, says Lincoln Brower, a zoology professor at the University of Florida, is the "Mecca of the whole insect world".

So far the monarch population seems healthy – spotters have seen more of them heading for Mexico this autumn than in the past 15 years. But Professor Bower believes any deterioration of the mountain habitat would be disastrous for them. He said: "By taking even a single tree out near the colony you allow heat to escape and that then jeopardises the butterflies."

Despite demands on resources to boost education and reduce poverty, spending money on the reserve has been welcomed by Mexicans. The migration of the monarchs is a source of national pride. President Calderon is also directing cash into an area that, aside from tourism, has little to celebrate economically.

It is all part of the President's wider ambitions to improve the environment, including a programme to plant up to 270 million new trees across the country before the end of this year.

Announcing the funding, President Calderon said it is "possible to take care of the environment and at the same time promote development". While deforestation remains the biggest threat to the habitat, President Calderon insists that his government is "gaining ground in the fight against illegal logging".

Among scientists applauding the initiative is Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. He said: "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."