Heavily armed Mexican force defends monarch butterflies

With assault rifles hung over their shoulders, black paramilitary uniforms and body armor strapped around their chests, Roberto Paleo and his 17 officers are among the most heavily armed park rangers in the world. Yet they are guarding one of nature's most delicate creatures, the monarch butterfly. The rangers say they need to be heavily armed to protect the winter nesting grounds of millions of orange and black winged butterflies in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

The park has been ravaged by illegal loggers who move in armed gangs of up to 100 men. The Monarchs are not listed as endangered, but scientists say the deforestation could threaten their existence. Although a single butterfly can spend its entire life in either the United States or Mexico, they are born with the instinct to migrate north or south, and most do, traveling all the way from Canada to the central Mexican state of Michoacan each year, gathering by the millions in a relatively small section of still-forested mountains.

"The forest is like a blanket and umbrella to protect the Monarchs from the cold winters," said Lincoln Brower, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida who has been studying the butterflies for nearly 50 years. "If the forest disappears, we could lose one of the wonders of nature." Last season, only 22 million Monarchs arrived to the park, an 80 percent drop from the previous year, prompting the Mexican government to set up the special police force.

Aided by hidden video cameras and communicating with special coded radios to avoid scanners, the officers speed around on ATVs, looking for loggers in the rugged terrain, which spans more than 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres). Their arsenal of weapons include AR-15 and Galil automatic rifles, pump-action shotguns and Smith & Wesson handguns.

Mexico's illegal logging trade generates millions of dollars a year _ so much money that these crimes are difficult even for such an armed force to stamp out. While they've already seized eight pickup trucks full of timber, they have yet to catch a logger, Paleo said. Still, Francisco Luna, the Michoacan delegate for Mexico's federal environmental protection agency, says the mere presence of the police has deterred many of the logging gangs. "They know we are here and that we are going to take away their vehicles and arrest them," Luna said. "Stealing lumber from the reserve is simply not worth it now", reports the AP. N.U.

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