Butterfly Tourism in Chiapas
Those little white butterflies with translucent wings carpeted the ravine. They were destroying crops, believed local coffee farmers. They should be dead.
Leaders in the El Águila community convinced them to hold their fire for a scientific second opinion. Benigno Gómez y Gómez provided it – and more. “We discovered that they weren’t pests at all but rather part of a migratory flow of a species of nocturnal butterflies,” said the researcher from ECOSUR, a local institute. “I suggested that the spectacular sight of thousands of butterflies flying around such a small space could be a tourist attraction.”
Not only were the wondrous swarms of white butterflies not harmful, they could offer a source of income.
Sources of income are hard to come by in the highlands of the southernmost tip of Mexico. The most common storefront signs advertise bus tickets to Tijuana, last stop on Mexico’s northern border before the crossing to the United States. But butterfly tourism is growing throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States, and 18 entrepreneurial souls – more than half of them women – decided to invest sweat equity in an enterprise to attract and receive visitors. “This way we don’t have to depend on just coffee,” said Oswaldo Rufino Bravo Robler, founding partner and treasurer of Pak´al Tsix A´ (which means “water-winged butterflies” in Mam, a Mayan language), the entity that runs the initiative.
At 1,250 meters above sea level, El Águila is located in the upper reaches of a micro-watershed that goes by the same name. Even sans infrastructure or marketing, an estimated 5,000 intrepid individuals visited the area to view the butterflies during December 2006 and January 2007. But by February the white butterflies were migrating up and out – probably to the peak of the nearby Tacaná volcano, scientists suspect. The tourists vanished with them.
The solution was to create a butterfly garden (“mariposario” in Spanish) that would replicate the seasonal conditions year-round. Such butterfly farms or hatcheries exist in other parts of the world, notably in Costa Rica. The Pak´al Tsix A´ team commandeered an abandoned storage building and has transformed it into a little enclosed greenhouse, where the white butterflies’ favorite plants are being cultivated. Soon larvae will be introduced and – if all goes according to plan – white butterflies will coat the enclosure.
Gómez y Gómez believes that the white butterfly might be both endemic, exclusive to the region, and a new species. So far he and other scientists have only identified its genus - Diaphania. The region harbors other species – including the rare endemic and threatened Limanopoda cinna and the monarch – thought not in volumes needed to create a spectacle for visitors. Still the mariposario team plans to raise specimens of all local butterflies.
At the entrance the building, a gift shop and restaurant are planned. Some partners in Pak´al Tsix A´ will produce handicrafts on butterfly themes to compliment the t-shirts and post cards in the gift shop. The complex includes a small artificial pond where fish will be raised for the hungry hordes that are expected to descend on the place.
Another part of the group is receiving training in butterfly biology and additional skills to become guides in a planned open-air sanctuary precisely in the region where the coffee farmers originally reported the wing onslaught – about four kilometers from the community. “There’s a waterfall that makes a great tourist attraction,” said Bravo Robler. “We’ll have people to take visitors to see the rivers below and a giant rock that will be part of the circuit. We’re planning to organize that after the mariposario is ready.”