Article

Strategies to prevent the monarch butterfly from going extinct


Monarch butterfly (credit: Cheryl Thomas on Shutterstock)
Monarch butterfly (credit: Cheryl Thomas on Shutterstock)

The extinction of species is a major concern today, as we are experiencing a mass extinction. A mass extinction occurs when animals, plants, and possibly people die. While some species have gone extinct a long time ago, many have only recently disappeared, and some are on the verge of extinction. This implies it's too late for some animals but not for others! This provides hope, as coexistence with various plant and animal species on our planet is critical. This is because each species contributes to healthy natural processes.
One of the animals on the verge of extinction and playing an important role in natural processes are monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are large with a wingspan of up to 10 cm (4 inches). They are also well-known for their long-distance seasonal migrations in search of food. They migrate up to 4,000 km (about 2485.48 miles) from the north and central United States and southern Canada to their overwintering sites in central Mexico. This journey lasts more than one lifetime: each year, the journey takes at least three and possibly five generations of monarch butterflies!
Migrating monarch butterfly colony (credit: JHVEPhoto on Shutterstock)
Migrating monarch butterfly colony (credit: JHVEPhoto on Shutterstock)

This long journey benefits not only monarch butterflies but also the environment. This is because monarch butterflies, like other butterflies, are pollinators, meaning they transport pollen to other plants. These pollen stick to their bodies when they visit flowers to extract nectar and are required for other flowers to produce fruits. When they migrate and transport pollen to other areas, they contribute to genetic variations in these plants, making them more resistant to changing conditions. They also help to increase plant biodiversity and food supplies as their pollination increases the number of seeds and fruits.
Unfortunately, these stunning, one-of-a-kind butterflies are endangered. The monarch is listed as endangered since 2022 after their numbers decreased by 22 to 72%, over a 10-year period. The three planetary crises—climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss—are the primary causes of this severe decline. For example:
  • Climate change raises temperatures in summer breeding areas during September and October. These higher temperatures postpone the fall migration by 6 days per decade. As a result, the number of monarchs arriving in Mexico for the winter is decreasing.
  • Pollution from the extensive use of pesticides and other chemicals reduces the amount of food for migrating colonies.
  • Biodiversity loss causes the number of nectar-producing plants to reduce, or they provide fewer nutrients, limiting butterflies' survival.
So, as monarch butterflies are important to the environment but are threatened by climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, it is critical to help them survive. Aside from limiting the impact and resolving these three crises, here's what action we can take to prevent their extinction:

Monitoring programs

The first action we can take to prevent monarch butterflies from becoming extinct is to monitor them. Monitoring programs are beneficial because they provide information about the size and number of monarch butterfly colonies, as well as the overall health of the environment.
The size and number of monarch butterfly colonies are investigated in the monarch overwinter monitoring program. This program calculates the number of colonies and the amount of forest surface area occupied by butterfly colonies in the second half of December after all colonies have arrived in Mexico. According to the data gathered, monarch butterflies have formed 7-14 colonies over the last ten years. They covered approximately 2.71 hectares (6.72 acres; roughly 5 soccer fields). What has not yet been measured as part of this program is the density of these colonies. This is an important addition, as knowing how many butterflies live in these colonies provides additional information about the species and the actions needed to prevent their extinction.
In this video, you can see how monarch butterflies cover a forest and be in the middle of a colony without disturbing them!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWOySU_hAz0


The health of the environment is investigated by assessing the condition of the forest on both public and private land. This data is used to prevent illegal logging of trees. Between 2000 and 2012, 2,179 hectares (5,384 acres) of forest were illegally logged, with only 13.4 hectares (33 acres) in 2021. This is equivalent to decreasing from over 4,000 to approximately 25 soccer fields!


Sanctuaries

The second action we can take to prevent monarch butterflies from becoming extinct is to establish sanctuaries. A sanctuary is a nature reserve where monarch butterflies are protected and can live in their natural habitat, while humans can learn more about the species. The creation of the monarch butterfly sanctuary in Mexico exemplifies what a butterfly sanctuary requires to be successful:
The Mexican sanctuary was established in 1977, based on the scientific understanding of monarch needs at the time. By 1980, the government, with the assistance of scientists and environmentalists, had established a protected zone where monarch butterflies spent the winter. The effectiveness of this zone was limited, however, because it was only protected during the winter months and the boundaries were not clearly defined.

That is why, in 1986, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was established, covering 16,110 hectares (approximately 40,000 acres; more than 30,100 soccer fields), and was protected all year. Unfortunately, the decision to allocate this land to the reserve was made without the landowners' informed consent, resulting in a lack of local support. Furthermore, the core zones of the reserve remained unconnected, reducing its effectiveness.

Based on these experiences, the protected area was redesigned in 1998 to be not only a permanent and scientifically sound sanctuary with clear boundaries but also one that is supported by local landowners and has connected core zones. The area increased to 56,259 hectares (approximately 139,000 acres; more than 105,000 soccer fields).

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (credit: Atosan on Shutterstock)
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (credit: Atosan on Shutterstock)


Funding

The third action we can take to prevent monarch butterflies from becoming extinct is to establish ongoing funding. This is important as sanctuaries with facilities and ongoing research projects require funds to continue their work.
Also, funding is required to enable landowners in the core zone to preserve the forest that supports the monarchs. Landowners, for example, are paid to refrain from cutting trees on their property, thereby limiting logging. This funding has helped an increasing number of landowners, now accounting for 33 out of 38 owners. As a result, landowners are now an integral part of monarch conservation efforts.

How we can take action

Monarch butterflies are endangered due to the effects of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. To prevent them from going extinct, we need to protect them. We can help them survive by establishing monitoring programs, maintaining sanctuaries, and ensuring funding for ongoing preservation efforts. And here are practical ideas of what you and I can do to protect the monarch butterfly in daily life:
  • Supporting local conservation efforts
  • When living close to an area in which monarch butterflies live: growing native plants that provide monarch butterflies with nutrients, such as milkweed
  • Sharing knowledge about the importance and beauty of monarch butterflies with others, for example by sharing this article
  • Contribute to a wildlife fund that supports butterfly sanctuaries
About the author Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten is a an internationally recognized environmental sustainability expert. She is a science communicator, helpings scientists in the fields of nature and sustainability increase the outreach of their results and allowing us all to put scientific insights into practice and contribute to a sustainable future. Erlijn has inspired thousands of people around the world — for example — by supporting the United Nations with her expertise, her book A Guide to A Healthier Planet published by Springer Nature, her YouTube channel Xplore Nature, and her posts on social media.


Credit

  • Chris Ndungu

    8 w

    A serious action need to be taken to ensure that these creatures have not gone to extinct because they not only bring benefit to plants alone but also to us as human beings.

    1
    • George Kariuki

      9 w

      This is a very informative overview of the threats facing monarch butterflies.

      1
      • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

        9 w

        By highlighting the importance of monitoring programs, establishing sanctuaries, and securing ongoing funding, it emphasizes the collective effort needed to conserve these iconic insects. Additionally, the author provides actionable steps that individuals can take to support monarch conservation efforts in their daily lives, reinforcing the message of personal responsibility in combating climate change and biodiversity loss. Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten's expertise in environmental sustainability adds credibility to the article, making it a valuable resource for raising awareness and inspiring action in the fight against species extinction.

        4
        • Munene Mugambi

          9 w

          @rukia_ahmed_abdi It is vital to use the funding set aside for such programs effectively to ensure maximization of available resources as we try to advance lives of such species.

          1
        • Simon Bergbom

          9 w

          Thanks for sharing!

          2
          • Munene Mugambi

            9 w

            As environmentalists, we should do all we can to prevent this and other species from going extinct as they're very useful to out ecosystem

            6
            • Joseph Githinji

              9 w

              This are great measures to protect monarch butterfly and protect the ecosystem.

              7
              Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
              Post youtube preview with preloading
              youtube overlay

              Write or agree to climate reviews to make businesses and world leaders act. It’s easy and it works.

              Write a climate review

              Voice your opinion on how businesses and organizations impact the climate.
              0 trees planted

              One tree is planted for every climate review written to an organization that is Open for Climate Dialogue™.

              Download the app

              We plant a tree for every new user.

              AppleAndroid