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Protecting Monarch Butterflies and Their Forests

WWF works with local communities to ensure a sustainable use of the butterfly's forest home

Every year, monarch butterflies take one of the most amazing migrations on Earth. Fluttering between 1,200 to 2,800 miles over the course of two months, they leave their summer breeding areas in Canada and the United States to return to hibernation colonies in the forests of central Mexico. 

These same forests are inhabited and managed by agrarian communities. Local landownership is divided between ejidos (communal forestry and agriculture endeavors), indigenous communities, and small property owners. As the communities struggle with widespread poverty and lack of employment opportunity, they lean heavily on the forest and its resources for survival—the same forests in which the monarchs congregate.

To protect the area from unsustainable logging that threatens the butterflies’ unique habitat, the Mexican government took action. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was established, and later expanded with WWF support.

WWF helped create the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund to offer long-term economic incentives to communities committed to preserving forest in the Reserve’s core zone. The Fund’s benefits accrue to those communities which succeed in reducing illegal logging in the area.

Mushrooms, Trees and Butterflies

To assist local communities in keeping the forest intact, WWF helps establish alternative income-generating ventures—including sustainable mushroom and tree nurseries.

Today, nine mushroom nurseries provide protein to local households and income from sales. Mushroom producers have access to seeds, bio-material, and training with financial support from the Mexican government and WWF, and participation of local scientists. They learn cultivation techniques, administration processes, and how to manage the facilities’ equipment.

At the same time, 10 tree nurseries now produce around 1.5 million native trees every year for reforestation of local areas, with income supporting many full- and part-time jobs. WWF forest engineers help with the work of growing trees—including seed planting, bagging and plant location, installing irrigation systems, and managing administrative tasks.

Promoting tourism and protecting forests

With more than 150,000 tourists visiting the monarch hibernation colonies every year, building local capacity to manage tourism is essential. Working with local and federal authorities and WWF, community members are improving the area’s tourist infrastructure and management. A training program educates tourism guides and provides uniforms and tools that allow them to carry out their duties professionally.

Villagers also work in brigades to patrol the forest daily on the lookout for illegal loggers and forest fires. And their efforts are paying off: 2012 was the first year in which no deforestation due to illegal logging was reported in the protected area where the butterflies perch.

“We don’t stop protecting the forest any single day because it is our forest,” says Fernando Solis Zacarías, former president of Las Novias del Sol, the largest tree nursery. “Along the years our children will continue to depend on these trees.”

A change of conscience

For the communities involved in these endeavors there is a new appreciation of the forest they call home—and a change of conscience about how to use the forest in a sustainable way. Sustainable forest management can ensure their communities’ continued wellbeing—as well as the winter habitat of the butterflies that make their area so unique.

“It’s not only protecting the monarchs, it’s not only protecting the forest, but it’s helping the local communities develop in an economic and social way. Without their participation, without their commitment, we cannot move forward,” says Eduardo Rendón-Salinas, head of WWF-Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Program.

WWF works around the world in similar ways to empower local people to be part of conservation solutions. Indigenous peoples—often the traditional stewards of the land—are important partners in the program’s work.

Through WWF’s Community-Based Conservation Program, we know that working with communities, in ways that respect their rights and contribute to their livelihoods, is critical for successful conservation.

Learn More
Monarch Butterfly Survey Indicates Lowest Numbers in 20 Years

  • Monarch butteflies hibernate in the mountain forests of central Mexico, where a less extreme climate provides them a better chance of survival.

  • Monarch butterfly forest

    WWF's Eduardo Rendon-Salinas walks through one of several forests that serve as the overwintering areas of the Monarch from November to mid-February.

  • Tree nursery in monarch buttefly reserve

    Seedlings of trees native to the forest are grown in this nursery funded by WWF. Thousands of these seedlings are planted every year to replace trees lost to illegal logging activities or forest degradation.

  • Monarch butteflies

    Monarch butterflies hang from roost trees.

  • monarch butterfly

    “It’s not only protecting the monarchs, it’s not only protecting the forest, but it’s helping the local communities develop in an economic and social way," says WWF's Eduardo Rendón-Salinas.

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