Mexican Butterfly Enthusiast Uses Education To Promote Protection Of The Monarch

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
February 19, 2015

On a splendid sunny day in the central Mexican city of Zitacuaro, a group of kids clustered around a girl who held a plump yellow and black caterpillar in her hand. The caterpillar was devouring a tasty green leaf.

After finishing its meal, the caterpillar relieved itself on the girl's palm, leaving a tiny sausage-shaped poop that made the kids squeal.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A monarch caterpillar munches on a milkweed plant in the central Mexican city of Zitácuaro.

The children were learning about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly at a newly completed education center called Papaloztin. The name comes from an indigenous word meaning "little butterfly." The monarch is essentially the children’s neighbor. The camel-back mountains on the horizon host millions of butterflies each winter.

The founder of Papaloztin is Moises Acosta. He uses puppets and plastic models to teach the kids in a classroom setting. Outside, he raises real-life monarchs under mesh canopies, each showcasing a different stage of the butterfly's metamorphosis. Creating this center has been a longtime dream.

"I'm no biologist," Acosta said. "I studied tourism."

His interest came from working four years at Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 138,000-acre protected forest two hours northwest of Mexico City that's listed as a World Heritage site.

A monarch butterfly has laid a tiny egg on a milkweed plant growing in the outdoor lawn of a newly opened education center for kids.

"My work revolved around the tourists," Acosta said.

Thousands visit the reserve during butterfly season, which is November through March. Acosta said he witnessed tourists grabbing butterflies and trampling them.

"My main motivation is to teach people to respect the monarch and take care of its habitat," Acosta said.

He started Papaloztin in an empty room at his parents house five years ago with help from international butterfly experts. In 2011, the Mexican government gave him a $14,000 grant to build the center.  

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Moises Acosta is the founder of Papalotzin, an educational center based near the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in central Mexico.

"We finished up just a few months ago," Acosta said.

It hasn't been easy. A year ago, Papaloztin was the target of an arson.  

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Moises Acosta, founder of Papalotzin, teaches local children about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

"I was downtown on a Monday," Acosta said. "My dad called me and said, 'Come quick, Papaloztin is on fire!'"

Acosta rushed over to find his dad shoveling dirt on high flames. The water tank he'd filled a few days earlier was mysteriously empty. Later they found two Coca-Cola cans with gasoline residue. Charred monarch wings and larvae were everywhere.

Months before, Acosta said he publicly denounced illegal logging he had witnessed near the butterfly colonies on social media and to local news outlets. He posted pictures and provided GPS coordinates.

That got the attention of monarch defenders around the world, including globally renowned butterfly expert Lincoln Brower, a biology professor at Sweet Briar College.

“It's bad news and it needs to be stopped," Brower said. "There's not supposed to be any logging going on within the core zone of the reserve.”

Brower and others sent a formal letter of complaint to the Mexican government.

Acosta believes the fire was meant as a threat. Police made an initial report but the crime remains unsolved.

"Rather than bring us down," Acosta said. "It's strengthened our desire to move forward."

Meanwhile, at the newly rebuilt Papalotzin, a new generation of monarchs recently wiggled their way out of their cocoons. With luck, Acosta hopes they'll inspire a young generation of humans to protect their surroundings.