'Humans must intervene when a geosystem reaches critical state'

Rodrigo G. Llanos Gómez, 63, a financial advisor in Mexico with theological studies at the University of Navarra, uses his spiritual wisdom and leadership to bolster the conservation and public understanding of the migratory monarch butterfly.

Jun 06, 2023

A pair of monarch butterflies ((Photograph by Kenji Hamano Onodera).)

By Steven Salido Fisher
SIERRA CHINCUA, Mexico — Just before entering the sanctuary, Rodrigo G. Llanos Gómez took a deep breath and invited the crowd into silence, suspending everyone’s breath.

His wife of 39 years, Leticia María Buganza González, pointed to the tree canopy to shepherd the crowd’s gaze, but the 63-year-old financial advisor and theological graduate offered his binoculars with a knowing smile. 

The binocular lens, once adjusted, focused onto the swooping wings of millions of flickering monarch butterflies in the Sierra Chincua Biosphere Reserve, one of the few ancestral roosting homes of the migratory subspecies. 

Rodrigo and Leticia’s group of friends hiked into the sanctuary at the peak of the butterflies’ migratory journey in February 2023, just eight months after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the species endangered in a press release. "If you see a dead butterfly, don't pick it up," cautions one of the reserve guides to the crowd. "This is not only a sanctuary. It's also their cemetery."

Although it was the first time visiting the sanctuary for many in the group, Rodrigo roamed the flower-lush landscape with intimate familiarity. This was his fifteenth pilgrimage to the sanctuary since his first excursion thirty-five years ago.

“There wasn’t a road back then,” he laughed, recalling his first trek up the forested mountains. “So I had to carry my one-year-old son on my shoulders and hold my four-year-old daughter by her hand.” Years later Rodrigo reflects, “Now every time I arrive at the sanctuary, I feel the presence of God.”

Since Rodrigo’s first trip in 1988, over 99.9 percent of the butterfly population has declined, according to the IUCN press release. Rodrigo laments that deforestation in Mexico and urban development and pesticide use across the United States and Canada has caused the decline. 

“There’s a fragile equilibrium between the need people have to survive, the forests, and the needs of the butterflies,” Rodrigo emphasized. This nearly invokes Pope Francis’ words on biodiversity in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (34): “Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state.” 

But in the wake of that fragility, Rodrigo has partnered with Fundación Altenare, an organization dedicated to fostering the local conservation economy with long-time residents of the sanctuary’s surrounding communities. 

Over the years, Rodrigo has invited nearly three hundred people–including government officials, photographers, and friends and strangers alike–into the sanctuary to learn about the butterflies and the mission of Fundación Altenare. 

His book Taking Off, which came out in Spanish in 2022 with an English translation expected in 2023, also shares this educational mission by combining photography with the fundamental science of butterflies. 

“I have a gamble,” Rodrigo said with defiant hope. “Each day more people learn about this phenomenon, there’ll be more support for Fundación Altenare–to be a part of this ecosystem and grow relationships.”

Waving his arms and hands to imitate the flapping of butterfly wings, Rodrigo articulates the scientific mysteries of the migratory butterfly: their delicate anatomy, their ability to repopulate after freezing blizzards, and most strikingly, their capacity to migrate annually across four generations from Canada to Mexico. No individual butterfly has traveled the entire round trip and science has yet to decipher how each butterfly descendant knows their way across the migratory path.

A pair of monarchs swoop from the cool of the trees and teeter into a cradle of sunlit milkweed, unfurling their curled tongues into the flower’s nectar. “The fact that God created us and all creatures and the butterflies means that in some way they also reflect God,” he contemplated. “It isn’t exact, but we are made in God’s image and likeness, as are tigers and whales, and yes, the butterflies.”--Vatican News

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