Mexican Park Rangers Protect ButterfliesBy
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
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
"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
"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
Mexican authorities aim to have more than 100 officers by the middle of
next year, supported by volunteer patrols, mostly consisting of local
"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
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."