Mexico's Monarch Butterflies Under Threat

"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.

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