Mexican Park Rangers Protect Butterflies

By IOAN GRILLO, Associated Press WriterFri Dec 16, 2:34 PM ET

With assault rifles over their shoulders and body 
armor strapped to their chests, Roberto Paleo and 
his 17 officers are among the world's most 
heavily armed park rangers. Yet they guard one of 
nature's most delicate creatures  the monarch butterfly.

The rangers say they need the weapons to protect 
the winter nesting grounds of millions of orange 
and black winged butterflies from armed gangs of 
illegal loggers in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

The monarchs are not listed as endangered, but 
scientists say the deforestation could threaten their existence.

Although a single butterfly can spend its entire 
life in the United States or Mexico, they are 
born with the instinct to migrate. Most do  
traveling in the millions from Canada to a 
mountainous area in central Mexico each year to 
carpet fir trees that provide shelter, an 
aesthetic and scientific wonder that attracts about 200,000 visitors annually.

"The forest is like a blanket and umbrella to 
protect the monarchs from the cold winters," said 
Lincoln Brower, professor emeritus of zoology at 
the University of Florida who has been studying 
the butterflies for nearly 50 years. "If the 
forest disappears, we could lose one of the wonders of nature,"

Last season, 22 million monarchs reached the 
park, an 80 percent drop from the previous year, 
prompting the Mexican government to set up the special police force.

Aided by hidden video cameras and communicating 
with special radios to avoid scanners, the 
officers speed around in all-terrain vehicles, 
looking for loggers in the rugged area, which 
spans more than 124,000 acres. Their arsenal 
includes AR-15 and Galil automatic rifles, 
pump-action shotguns and Smith & Wesson handguns.

Mexico's illegal logging trade generates millions 
of dollars a year. And while the rangers have 
seized eight pickup trucks full of timber, they 
have yet to catch a logger, Paleo said.

Still, Francisco Luna, the Michoacan delegate for 
Mexico's federal environmental protection agency, 
says the mere presence of the police has deterred many logging gangs.

"They know we are here and that we are going to 
take away their vehicles and arrest them," Luna 
said. "Stealing lumber from the reserve is simply not worth it now."

Some environmentalists worry the small police 
force may not be enough to fight the gangs. In 
2003, a group of 100 loggers armed with shotguns 
and machetes held three park rangers hostage for 
six hours while they chopped down trees.

"These loggers are heavily armed, organized 
groups who are sometimes linked to drug 
traffickers," said environmentalist Homero 
Aridjis, a Michoacan native who has been 
campaigning to protect the monarchs for three decades.

Mexican authorities aim to have more than 100 
officers by the middle of next year, supported by 
volunteer patrols, mostly consisting of local farmers.

"We have to protect the forest to keep the supply 
of water we need for our crops," said farmer 
leader Juan Rojas, standing with a group of 20 
farmers. "And we want to look after the 
butterflies. They are part of our patrimony."

Many tourists come to see monarchs hanging from 
the trees during their November-March nesting 
season, bringing much needed cash into a local 
economy that survives largely off of money sent 
home by migrants in the United States.

Scientists have only tracked the butterfly 
numbers for the past decade, so it is difficult 
to know whether last year's population drop is 
normal. Mexican authorities believe the monarch 
population will rebound this year to more than 60 million.

"The monarch population changes enormously year 
on year," said Jose Bernal of Mexico's 
environmental protection agency. "We haven't 
studied it long enough to see a pattern yet. It 
is alarmist to say the population is in danger of disappearing."

Still, Brower says there is irrefutable evidence 
that the destruction of Mexico's forest is a threat to the butterflies.

"The monarch has become a symbol for cross border 
co-operation in North America," said Aridjis. 
"Let's hope it doesn't become the symbol of our 
common failure to protect the environment."