Originally published in Audubon, March 2006.
Migration: On the Wing With Monarchs
For 72 days Gutiérrez had accompanied the monarchs on their migration, from Montreal to Michoacán, logging 4,375 miles and drawing attention to the numerous threats they face as they travel across North America.
The monarch butterflies had arrived by the millions at their wintering grounds in Michoacán, Mexico, on November 3, 2005, when Francisco “Vico” Gutiérrez touched down his ultralight plane on a stretch of two-lane highway near the Sierra Chincua monarch reserve. For 72 days Gutiérrez had accompanied the monarchs on their migration, from Montreal to Michoacán, logging 4,375 miles and drawing attention to the numerous threats they face as they travel across North America. The 44-year-old ultralight pioneer and filmmaker called it the journey of the papalotzin, which means “royal butterfly” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. By that final landing in Mexico, the world was watching. Hundreds of people greeted him, including local schoolchildren, the international press, and a Mazahua Indian chief, who placed a garland of fresh marigolds around Gutiérrez’s neck in welcome and thanks. “It’s not just about the monarchs,” Gutiérrez said later, his curly hair framing a tender, tanned face. “It’s about all of us learning to live together, with each other and the earth.”
Gutiérrez’s love of flight has long been matched by his fascination with monarchs. Each fall the butterflies travel south, some fluttering more than 2,000 miles to the same mountainous patch of oyamel (a kind of fir) forest in central Mexico, where the perfect combination of elevation, temperature, and humidity helps the butterflies survive the winter, in 12 main colonies. Six years ago Gutiérrez began fantasizing about joining the monarchs on their southward journey. Last year his dream came true.
He placed colored stickers on the wings of his 420-pound ultralight that resembled the distinctive orange-and-black markings of Danaus plexippus, and embarked with a ground crew of photographers and videographers from Montreal last August 22. They filmed the entire journey-funded by the World Wildlife Fund, Telcel, and the state of Michoacán- and are now producing a one-hour documentary that is expected out by June and will be shown at international film festivals.
Gutiérrez made dozens of stops along the way, meeting legendary lepidopterists and backyard biologists. Everywhere the papalotzin team went, they talked about the risks that monarchs face in Canada, the United States, and Mexico from pesticide use and habitat loss to illegal logging. They urged coordination, conservation, and protection across borders. “It’s time for humans to change our attitude to nature,” Gutiérrez says. “The butterfly can teach us a lot. If we save the monarchs, we save ourselves.”