Mexico's Monarch Butterflies Under Threat

When the sun comes out in the mountains of central Mexico, hundreds of millions of tiny, orange monarch butterflies fill the skies.

To see the monarchs in their element, we rode through the forest of Michoacán, more than 11,000 feet above sea level, with Homero Aridjis, who grew up in the mountains. Aridjis has been visiting the butterflies each winter for 60 years.

It's not just the sheer number of butterflies that is astonishing, it is the density of them in the landscape. It is as if the trees are covered in a bark of butterflies. Butterflies fall from the trees, landing on our arms and feet.

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"They are welcoming us," Aridjis said.

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Unfortunately, some of the residents of the region have not returned the welcome. Though monarchs fill the skies, they are facing a dire threat, because the forests where these wonders of nature make their winter home is disappearing, the trees being chopped down by illegal logging operations.

The people of this region have known about the butterflies for generations, but scientist weren't able to confirm until 1975 that these are the very same butterflies found in the Great Lake states and Canada in the spring and summer.

VIDEO: Monarch butterflies may disappearPlay

Researchers followed the monarchs on their long autumn journey to these mountain tops in the state of Michoacán. The butterflies will return north by spring, dying by the time they land in Texas. Over the summer, five generations will pass. How their offspring know to return these same trees on these same mountain tops is one of the great mysteries of nature.

The butterflies have been a major draw for tourists. Visitors from around the world trek up the mountains with guides to see the mystical, magical monarchs. Marcia Cebulska and Tom Prasch came here from Topeka, Kan., just to see the monarchs.

"It truly is magnificent to see the clustering and then when they come to life and the sun hits them its pretty amazing," Prasch said.

"When the sun hits them and they all take off -- chills," Cebulska said.

Trina and Richard Luther came from Mariposa, Calif., to take in this natural beauty.

"I never expected to hear the wings of the butterflies. How do I describe it? It won't fit in a camera, I can't capture it. It's something really marvelous to stand here and to see them flying off the trees, to see them flying into the air -- to hear their wings, it's amazing," Trina Luther said. "And to think that they travel from here to Canada -- without passport -- and the next generation returns, it's just something incredible."

Federal Police Patrol for Illegal Loggers

The monarchs are drawn to Michoacán by the cool mountain air and by fir trees called oyamels, which are unique to this region. The butterflies perch on the oyamels' branches, wrapping their tiny feet on the trees' tiny needles. But the oyamel forests are under threat.

Since 2004, satellite images show that the forests have disappeared as a result of deforestation and logging. Farmland has crept up to the mountainsides, further shrinking the forests, and even though logging is illegal on the natural reserve, the forest slopes are littered with fallen trees and tree stumps.

"I become angry, because it doesn't solve poverty, doesn't solve social problems, it's just pathetic what they can get from an old tree," Aridjis said. "And it's just -- if I see this man, I can say I give you the $10, but please don't cut down this tree. But the problem is you can give them the $10 ... they can take the $10 and put it in their pockets and tomorrow they come and cut down the tree."

In timber areas, organized syndicates of illegal loggers routinely cut in forbidden zones. As a result of international pressure, the Mexican government has deployed federal police in the area to try to curb illegal logging in the mountains where the monarchs spend the winter. Sixty police officers patrol the vast terrain.

"The terrain is difficult to navigate, which makes it difficult for us to operate," Mexican Federal Police commander Oscar Inzulsa Camacho told ABC News.

The unit has made arrests and the police are investigating lumberyard operators for alleged illegal logging. But in a country that is combating violent drug cartels, protecting butterflies takes a back seat.

Tourism may be the best hope for persuading the people who live here to protect the forests. Tourist dollars bring long-term stable jobs in the mountains and in the surrounding towns. After years of facing skepticism from the local population, advocates for the butterflies believe they are making progress.

Eduardo Rendon of the World Wildlife Fund has been working with communities in the area for 15 years to build support to protect the forests and stop the logging.

Tourist Dollars Persuade Locals to Embrace Nature

"Tourism is a strategy that can help conservation, because it is a way for people to take advantage of the forest without cutting down the trees," Rendon told ABC News. "Fifteen years ago when I arrived here, people felt they were competing with the monarchs to use the forest. Today that's not the case."

If the forests aren't protected, one of the great wonders of the natural world will disappear. For Aridjis what is happening here is deeply personal.

As Mexico's Ambassador to UNESCO, he was instrumental in having the forests recognized as a U.N. World Heritage Site. The hope is that world recognition will help persuade Mexicans to stop the logging.

"I am so identified with this hill, that I feel the wounds, the fallen trees are almost a personal loss," he said. "It's like affecting my own childhood. My own life."

When the sun begins to set and the temperature drops, the monarchs head back to the trees.

"You see, there is coming the night and they just together, hanging from the tree sleeping ... and tomorrow, when the sun comes out, they touch ... the sunlight touches their wings and they begin to open and begin to fly," Aridjis said.

The butterflies' beauty is a masterpiece of nature, a real-life work of art that is under threat.