Mexico: the incredible odyssey of the monarch butterfly

When winter comes, the monarch butterfly leaves its American home and spends two months travelling at speeds of almost 75 kilometres a day to the sacred fir forests in the mountains of central Mexico.

The monarch butterfly way...

…is a life of travel, a 4,500-kilometre odyssey in a daring migratory voyage that runs like clockwork, and continues to baffle scientists today.

Once winter arrives in America, these masters of migration begin their never-ending journey to the sacred fir forests in central Mexico’s mountains. It is here in their winter palace that the butterflies ride out the frost, before hitting the road once more in March and April, embarking on the trip back home. But because the average monarch butterfly rarely lives longer than five weeks, those that make the journey back are the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of those that first set off.

More amazing still, every year at the end of summer, the monarch butterflies give birth to a special generation, known as the Methuselah butterfly. Unlike the others, these little creatures can live for up to eight months: giving them enough time to make the full return trip!

Deforestation in the boreal forests in the state of Michoacán is threatening the monarch butterfly’s sanctuary and endangering its southward migration. In 2014, a scientific committee estimated that 35 million monarchs made the journey, compared to a billion in the early 1990s. In 2019, over 400 species vanished from the face of the Earth, yet the Zitácuaro forests saw a 44% rise in monarch colonies. Planting trees offers a glimmer of hope.

I had already heard of monarch butterflies. National Geographic had covered them in its issue on migration. But seeing them in person was extraordinary, a highlight of my career, a moment that proved both strange and magical. – Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre, one photographer, a thousand nuances

Born in France in 1955, this blacksmith’s son never imagined he would become a photographer. His aunt married an American soldier before moving to the northern US, and sent him his first camera: a Rolleiflex 4×4 he would go on to use to take his first snaps. He dropped out of his psychology course and began his military service in the army’s photography unit. His career officially started in 1979, when he began working for Jeune Afrique magazine.

All too often, people tend to associate Pascal Maitre with Africa, but reducing this incredible photographer’s talent to his African wanderings would be a gross injustice. A master of the delicate art of colour, Pascal Maitre brought us the iconic photograph of Commander Massoud, taken from behind as he gazes out over Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, and images taken in Mexico in 1986, capturing the last remaining survivors of the Mexican revolution, Emiliano Zapata’s brothers in arms. These amazing pictures saw the photographer awarded countless international prizes, although accolades matter little to him. Pascal Maitre has never ceased to garner the best reward there is for a photojournalist: having his work published in the world’s leading newspapers and magazines on a regular basis.

For the Yves Rocher Foundation, he embarked on this spectacular photographic quest, following in the footsteps of the Mexican monarchs’ odyssey. Every step of the way, he succeeded in capturing unique moments in the butterflies’ lives, milestone moments that fascinate scientists while shining a light on the issues that currently exist in Mexico’s sacred fir forests, the monarchs’ winter residence.

He has plenty of thoughts to share on the experience:

I had never really worked with wildlife – and certainly not insects! These monarch butterflies posed a real technical challenge. […] Photographing them in their thousands as they flit overhead was a real brain-teaser. I had to take a huge amount of photos, often at random. […] It was crucial I get as much depth of field as possible, both in terms of the photography and in a journalistic sense, too. 

To learn more about Pascal Maitre’s work, head over to

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