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Monarch's wonderland under siege in Mexico

IT COULD be a scene out of a fairy tale. Nestled deep in the 10,000-foot-high mountains here, millions of monarch butterflies drape the trees and carpet the forest floor.

Their fragile black-and-orange wings, recuperating after a six-week, 3,000-mile trek from Canada and the northeastern United States, are soothed by the morning light. The sun slips behind a cloud - and the butterflies flutter into flight, creating the sound of a gently falling rain.

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But the monarch's winter wonderland is under siege.

Just a few hundred yards down the slope, the buzz of a chainsaw cuts through the crisp mountain air. Flat-bed trucks laden with pine logs rumble continuously down the rugged roads. And near the sanctuary entrance, a mule train guided by a band of illegal wood smugglers slips into the forest.

Widespread deforestation is the monarch's single biggest threat. Fueled by poverty, overpopulation, and reckless logging companies, it is already harming the delicate ecological balance in the five small reserves here, the species' only known winter habitat.

``If people continue cutting down trees at the same rate, the monarchs might last only another 10 years here,'' says Jorge Mart'inez, a field biologist for the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE). ``The monarchs can't adjust [to a changing environment] that quickly.''

Scientists still puzzle over how the 120 million featherweight migrants know to return thousands of miles to the same ``oyamel'' trees year after year - especially since the butterflies here are five generations removed from those that left last year.

But one thing is clear: The highland fir forests provide just the right mix of heat and humidity to let the monarchs hibernate without freezing.

Protected from extreme temperatures by the forest canopy, the inert insects spend most of their time hanging from the trees in enormous clusters of up to 500,000 butterflies. During the warmest hours of the day, they float downhill in search of water and floral nectar, with which they store up body fats for the spring trip north.

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But indiscriminate logging - sometimes even clandestine cutting within the preserve itself - is making the habitat more vulnerable, according to several scientists and zoologists studying the monarchs.

The gaps in forest cover, they say, expose the monarchs to slightly colder nights and warmer days. And with less trees to retain the sporadic rainfall, the damp forest is gradually becoming more arid.

``The water level in the streams has gone down considerably,'' says Maria Elena Castro, director of the nonprofit Monarca Association, which is devoted to protecting the butterflies. ``In some parts of the reserves, there is no water to drink - and that's the thing they need most.''

Mrs. Castro says that loggers and locals have become more sensitive to the need to protect the butterflies' habitat. But the fight to stop deforestation has more to do with economics than ecology.

It's not just that pulp mills pay an average of $500 for a truckload of precious pine logs, or about $150 per tree. It's not just that the forests seem so plentiful that logging companies are reluctant to pay for proper reforesting. But for thousands of peasants who live near the preserves, including nearly 3,000 here in El Rosario, there is no other source of income - or fuel.

Their rocky, hillside plots don't yield enough corn and beans to feed their own families. The local mining industry has laid off workers. And the big commercial flower company in town has been on a rapid decline.

``It's obvious that there's a connection between poverty and deforestation,'' says Roberto Hern'andez, who helps run the monarch preserves for SEDUE. ``Our job is not to restrict the people's only source of income but to offer some kind of alternative.''

For the peasants of El Rosario, that alternative has been tourism.

Twenty local residents now work in the preserve as game wardens and guides. Two-dozen food stalls are being constructed to accommodate hungry tourists. But the main income comes from the proceeds of the park: Last year, when the number of tourists doubled to 50,000, the community picked up $16,000.

``The people now don't see the butterflies as their enemy,'' says Jaime Montes de Oca, subdirector of national parks for SEDUE, noting that 7,000 new seedlings were planted in the preserve earlier this year. ``They understand that protecting the monarch's forest benefits them.''

But even in El Rosario, the only community that has thus far benefited from the monarchs, the protection is far from foolproof.

One recent afternoon, a rifle blasted from a restricted area. Nearby, a dying campfire spewed a column of smoke. And further down the hill, not far from a spot where monarchs covered the ground, three untethered cows grazed on the underbrush.

In yesterday's Monitor, a drawing next to an article on Monarch butterfly migration is actually a Tiger Swallow Tail butterfly, which does not migrate.

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