Jaime Rojo combines his passion for wild nature, his storytelling skills and his training in environmental sciences to elaborate visual projects that help reconnect the public with the natural world. He was born and raised in Spain and in 2004 he moved to Mexico to work with different environmental organizations. Since then he has coordinated conservation initiatives such as the San Pedro Mezquital campaign to protect the last free-flowing river in the Western Sierra Madre or The Natural Numbers, an online series that questions our use of the natural capital of our planet. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a Trustee of The WILD Foundation and a recipient of the Philipp Hyde Award by the North American Nature Photography Association
A carpet of monarch butterflies covers the forest floor of El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, after a snowstorm. The severe storm hit the mountains of Central Mexico on 8 and 9 March, 2016, just as wintering colonies of the butterflies were starting their migration back to the USA—a journey of more than 4,500 kilometers.
The butterflies are surprisingly resilient and can survive several days in sub-zero temperatures as long as they remain dry, but it was unclear how badly the snowstorm affected the colonies. After a general decline in monarch populations, with numbers dipping by 90 percent since the 1990s, there had been a recent increase, and the winter had been seen as a possible turning point for the species.
I have been working with Monarch butterflies for over ten years now, and could name a thousand reasons why I photograph them. First of all, they have one of the most well-known migrations in the animal world, and as a wildlife spectacle they’re one of the most impressive things to watch. I’m talking about millions of butterflies flying around at the same time.
These large concentrations of animals have a very important meaning for conservation. They’re an iconic species of this region in Mexico, but at the same time, they’re very endangered. Do not get confused by the optical illusion of seeing so many butterflies in my photos. Even though they are resilient, they are currently very threatened.
As always in the environment, the problems causing it are three-dimensional. One of them is the use of the pro-spectrum pesticides that kill the milkweed. This is a kind of grass on which these butterflies depend for their migration. If there is no milkweed, they can’t find the energy they need to make their epic journey.
But also unusual weather conditions (caused by climate change) are an important factor. The time I took this picture, there was an unusually strong storm. We have snow in those woods, but never in March. More than 90 percent of the population of Monarchs gathers in these forests. So if something unusual happens, the risk of losing a species is really high. You can wipe out an entire population with a storm.
When I saw these storms coming to the mountains, I immediately thought about the butterflies. I requested special access to the park very urgently, but I had to wait 48 hours until they allowed me to go in and document the story.
Once I was in the region where the butterflies gather, it was very difficult to capture them. The ground was covered with Monarchs. You cannot step on them, so with help of people of the reserve, we made a little trail, moving one butterfly after the other. I wanted to get an image that could summarize the whole catastrophe the colony was experiencing
This being said, I don’t think any of those butterflies in the winning picture are dead. They are frozen, but they can survive up to three days in freezing conditions as long as they remain dry. The moment they die, they lose water and they start to shrink. But if the sun hits them and they warm up before the snow melts, they are able to walk up a trunk or even fly away.
As a conservation photographer, it’s always tricky to find a balance between beautiful, emotional and inspirational stories and the harsh and sad stories that grab your heart. I think we are immensely privileged but we also have great responsibility, because we are showing the rest of the world what is happening on the planet. We are here to amplify the voice of nature by using the emotion a very strong image can create.