Each fall, clouds of some 70 million black and orange monarch butterflies fly from Canada to a small Mexican village, the longest migration of any butterfly.
But each year, the butterfly's habitat in Angangueo, a village in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, grows smaller, as logging and agriculture reduce the forest where the delicate insects spend the winter.
"It's estimated that around some of these reserves as many as 60,000 trees a year are being cut simply for fuel wood for cooking fires and keeping people warm," says Bill Toone, a conservationist at the San Diego Zoo.
Conservationists at the zoo were asked to help promote eco-tourism to the area, both to help save the forest and help local people profit from the annual migration, which attracts 300,000 tourists. Bilingual educators from the zoo have teamed up with local tour guides to discuss how to enhance the experience of tourists.
Pine Needle Baskets
"This program's for people as much as butterflies," Toone says. "To help to plant trees, fuel trees, not trees for the butterfly, but trees that the locals can use as fuel."
Conservationists are hoping eco-tourism can take the place of income lost when butterfly sanctuaries are created.
"We're not telling them not to use the forest," says Deirdre Ballou, an educator with the San Diego Zoo. "We're trying to teach them that there are alternate ways of income, but there are also ways that they can use the forest without destroying it."
That includes baskets made from fallen pine needles, like those handcrafted by a local women's cooperative.
"The ones that really sell are the small baskets," Ballou says. The baskets are also sold in gift shops at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park in California.
Local people are now talking about protecting the butterfly by saving the forest, says Mexican biologist Benigno Salazar Martinez. They understand their future is tied to the monarch butterfly, just as the butterfly's future is tied to theirs.
The Endangered Species Report is produced in cooperation with the San Diego Zoo.