Back from the Brink: Bay Area’s Monarch Butterflies

Endangered Monarch Butterflies

My first conscious thought that gray morning was that we would be amidst giants. We had planned a hike in the coastal redwoods of California near Muir Woods. As we entered Cathedral Grove, I pointed to a sign that said, “Be seen not heard!”. 

“Yes….that is for you!” We all said pointing to one another. 

“Quiet Coyote!” and off we went, quieter than our usual selves. There is a natural sanctity, a lasting feeling of peace, and a humbling of self in these groves. 

Many of the trees in Muir Woods are over half a millennia-old. These trees had put down roots long before the Spanish conquistadors came to the United States, or the Gold Rush had started. California would not be the same after these events. Silicon Valley was centuries away when these marvelous giants had started reaching up, up, and above towards the skies. But here, inside the redwood forests, none of that seems relevant. 

After hiking several feet up, we were able to gasp for breath, inhaling the lovely scent of the woods. A few miles into the hike, there were fewer people, and the children opened up.

Biodiversity in the Bay Area (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

My son told us about the disappearing monarch butterflies. I remember visiting the Butterfly Grove a few years ago. It was easy to mistake the butterflies for leaves. There were thousands of them plastered together on the branches, hanging everywhere, looking beautiful. Millions of them made the journey every year, up and down the coast, and they made a beautiful sight. Who doesn’t stop to admire a flitting butterfly? Earlier this year, less than 2000 monarch butterflies were counted. The species was dying. A world without butterflies sent a shiver down my spine.

What have we done to this planet if butterflies are no longer in our midst? 

My daughter piped in, “You know monarch butterflies are a corner species – meaning they indicate the state of the ecosystem in general. For instance, if monarchs go away, then birds find out that painted lady butterflies aren’t toxic and soon we start losing species that look like them as well.” Apparently, the monarch butterflies are toxic to birds and they leave them alone. Seeing a little evolutionary wormhole, other species like the painted lady butterflies evolved with the same color scheme, but they aren’t poisonous to birds. How long before birds figure this out?

“But how did this happen?” In the decade since we went to see the butterfly grove, how did 99% of the species manage to be destroyed

“Milkweed!” came the answer. This ubiquitous plant that thrived along roadsides, freeways, and everywhere is fast disappearing due to the increased use of fertilizers. Toxic to other animals, the milkweed is apparently a major source of nectar for monarch butterflies. Could we bring these butterflies back from the brink? It seemed like a miracle would be required.

Matt Sewell’s book, Forgotten Beasts: Amazing Creatures That Once Roamed the Earth is a highly captivating book of animals that once roamed the Earth. Beautifully illustrated, this book is a treasure. Every time I thumb through its pages, I marvel at how life managed to thrive, sustain, and regenerate in all its fantastic forms. As I read about the defense mechanisms of each animal, the unique ways in which they thrived and survived, an obvious question from our recent conversation on monarch butterflies flickered through the brain: how many of our current organisms are having the same sort of trouble?

The next book was the obvious pair to Matt Sewell’s book of extinct animals — 100 Animals to See Before They Die by Nick Garbutt & Mike Unwin. Would we get the opportunity to save species such as the Hirola, Mountain Nyala, Bonobo, The Perplexing Platypus, or the Irrawady Dolphins?

When we visited the Boston Science Museum back in the summer, we were able to watch an excellent documentary on the exhilarating recovery of 3 animals, and how they made it off the endangered list — Back From the BrinkAs I sat there watching nature’s survival unfold before us on the high ceilinged dome, I remembered the awe I felt when I learned that Charles Darwin predicted that a moth with a long proboscis must be around for the Star of Bethlehem orchid, a long tube with nectar and pollen at the end, to thrive. How thrilling it must be, to be able to figure out things like that?

Back From the Brink walks us through 3 different scenarios in which man-made decisions led to the near extinction of certain species, and how man-made efforts also brought them back from the brink of extinction. 

  • The first one was about the foxes in Catalina Island, off the coast of California
  • The second one was on golden monkeys in China
  • The third one was the red crabs on an island near Australia 

Each species has a different story arc – the foxes in Catalina Island were the result of DDT spray affecting the eggs laid by the bald eagles near the island. This led to a mass dying and migration of bald eagles. Once the bald eagles were no longer there, the golden eagles swooped in, and for them, these tiny foxes were prey. How the team of naturalists figured this piece out, and how they went about trapping foxes, bald eagles, and golden eagles, and then nurtured and relocated them till they could thrive again, is a marvelous journey.

The golden monkeys were a simple case of stopping poaching, but a hard fight indeed to get the poachers themselves to act as guardians to these marvelous creatures in these snowy terrains. 

The red crabs had an army to fight and thrive against. The yellow crazy ants, who accidentally came from ships years ago, had run amuck and the crabs were being inched out of their own homes. Naturalists introduced another species (knowing fully well out how much havoc such an act could cause). After much deliberation, they did so. The yellow ant population came down, and the crabs could thrive again. 

There is hope for the monarch butterflies too. The plight of the declining butterflies has been a cause worth worrying about. Many organizations, including Google, have funded the planting of milkweed and other monarch butterfly-friendly habitats along their migratory paths, and the numbers are reviving. This year, the count is up to 10,000. It remains to be seen whether they will make a full recovery to get off the endangered species list.  

Endemic Mammal Species by Country

 

Asia holds a high diversity of species in need of conservation. South Asia has lost many plant species and continues to lose mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. India has many protected forests and the National Parks there do an amazing job of trying to protect the species but deforestation and poaching threaten the biodiversity. However, we cannot deny that humans are becoming more and more part of the landscape.

In the book, Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, Emma Marris notes:

“These are species we cannot simply leave alone if we want them to persist. They are species that require intervention-at least for now. A 2010 analysis of the 1,136 species with recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act in the United States found that 84 percent require ongoing management.”

It is possible for us to coexist in mutually beneficial ways with our multi-species cohabitants, as is evident in the example of the dolphins and fisherfolk of the Ayeyarwady River in the Myanmar delta. Marris explains:

Here, the humans call to dolphins by tapping their canoes or making “guttural sounds with their mouths”, according to a report on the practice. Dolphins call to the humans by leaping from the water and slapping their flukes near their canoes, then lead the humans to schools of fish, which they then obligingly herd into the fisher’s nets. 

Both the dolphins and fisherfolk benefit from this, and the dolphins are highly respected by the fishing community. If only we could cultivate more mutual respect for our co-inhabitants on our planet, we could all thrive.

I closed my eyelids after reading this heartwarming tale about co-existing with different species. My eye still held the short-term memory of the redwoods in them. I closed them, instantly transported to a world in their midst. What will these trees witness in another 500 years? I sent up a little prayer hoping for the magnificence of life to thrive on Earth. A world without butterflies is not one I wish for our grandchildren. 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

 – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.


 

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