Protecting Mexico’s iconic salamander means saving one of the country’s most important wetlands
In February, crowds gathered around Mexico City’s Xochimilco Lake to witness the release of endemic salamanders called axolotls, culturally revered amphibians threatened with extinction due to lake pollution.
After a ritual ceremony with pre-Hispanic flutes and incense, mayors from different parts of the city placed six captive-bred axolotls (pronounced AK-suh-laa-tl) in the lake as a sign of commitment to preserve the species and its habitat. .
But Óscar Camacho Flores, founder of the national civil organization Preservacf AC, called it “a sacrificial ceremony rather than asking for their salvation, because it was obvious that they were going to die”.
Late last month, Camacho filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office against José Carlos Acosta Ruiz, the mayor of the Xochimilco community, for illegal environmental actions and cruelty to animals, given the contamination of Lake Xochimilco ( pronounced sochi-MILK-o). They did not have the required environmental permits, Camacho claims, nor did they follow suggested protocols for releasing the axolotls. Acosta Ruiz did not respond to a request for comment.
But the battle to save the axolotl touches on a bigger issue: saving one of the country’s most controversial wetlands.
Lake Xochimilco is the only remaining lake of five that once formed the Mexico Valley Lake Basin, an area of canals and island farms that includes more than 6,000 acres of protected wetlands at the southern tip of Mexico City. It is also home to the enduring chinampas – small rectangular islands first built by the Aztecs for agriculture centuries ago using willows, lilies and mud.
The lake also serves as a respite for migrating birds like pelicans and herons. It is home to 2% of the world’s biological diversity: approximately 1,700 species of plants, 57 species of reptiles, 320 species of birds, 70 species of mammals and 20 species of amphibians. More than 250 of these species are endemic, including the axolotl. The salamander is such a cultural icon among the Mexican people that the Bank of Mexico printed it on the country’s 50-peso bill.
Originally rich in fresh water and biodiversity, Lake Xochimilco has been reduced to a few waterways due to unregulated urban growth as the government uses it to meet the growing city’s water needs .
To counter the imbalance that excessive water extraction has had on the ecosystem of the lake, the government has started injecting secondary quality water from a treatment plant at el Cerro de la Estrella in the 1970s.
Around the same time, the Mexican government decided to introduce carp and tilapia – invasive alien species that feed on the axolotl – as a means of subsistence for the local population. Now, experts report the presence of faecal coliforms, streptococci and enterococci, heavy metals and endocrine disruptors, among other pollutants.
“Imagine the quality of this fish because […] any contaminants in the water go to the animal,” says Felipe Barrera, 46, a local chinampa farmer who has witnessed the decline of the lake in his lifetime. “My father told me again that you could swim [in the lake]on the fish that were there, that you could eat them with confidence.
The lake is drying up year after year, he added. “Every year it goes down, and it goes down. We don’t know when it’s going to stop.
If nothing changes, the lake will not only be polluted, but could disappear by 2050, with disastrous environmental consequences.
“If we lose all the water in Xochimilco, the city’s temperature would increase by an average of two degrees Celsius,” said Luis Zambrano, an ecology researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, whose work focuses on restoring Xochimilco and saving the axolotl.
The Mexican government has steadily reduced its environmental budget, from just over $4 billion in 2013 to $1.5 billion in 2020. Currently, the budget has been increased to approximately $1.8 billion, which which remains insufficient to meet the country’s environmental challenges.
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Meanwhile, late last year, the Mexico City government completed construction of a bridge that divided the Xochimilco wetland, fragmenting its hydrological flow.
The social inequalities and economic hardships faced by the Xochimilcans led Zambrano to implement the Refugio Chinampa project in 2018. He knew that caring for the chinampas and cleaning the lake water would pave the way for the return of the axolotl and other species, such as the acocil and charal fish, so he enlisted the help of local chinamperos like Barrera.
So far, up to 40 isolated chinampas have been restored, with around eight miles of refuge space for the axolotl. Zambrano wants to restore more in the future, to create a network of clean canals, although he has concerns about funding.
Its effort to date has received most of its funding from Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture, which became concerned about Xochimilco after it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987. The secretariat began donating approximately $318,000 a year at first, then reduced that amount to just over $227,000. Sometimes the government of Xochimilco also contributes, but for much smaller amounts.
“We need 10 times more to start calling more chinamperos because everything is going to make the chinampero live with dignity,” Zambrano said. But new generations of farmers are not as interested in continuing to work in chinampas, he said, due to the difficulty of maintaining them in a polluted environment and the harsh conditions in which they would have to live.
Ironically, helping locals restore and live off their chinampas is key to saving the axolotl and the lake. This agricultural system improves water quality because food is produced without fertilizers or pesticides. In addition, Zambrano installs filters that clean the water.
His work also helps stop urban overdevelopment on the lake and can make chinampas a sustainable source of food to feed Mexico City. Meanwhile, the chinampas provide refuge for the axolotl and other species. “The axolotl is the standard bearer, so to speak, of the whole troop that lives in the chinampa,” Barrera said.
But releasing the axolotl must be done properly, with proper permits and research. “A reintroduction process needs to be very well planned, especially for endangered species,” Zambrano said. This involves following Mexico’s environmental regulations and international protocols from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has placed the axolotl in its critically endangered species category.
What the mayors did in releasing the axolotl in February was nothing new, Zambrano said. He said he saw others raising axolotls without the necessary environmental permits and performing the reintroduction ceremony as a way to attract people and tourists, with clear consequences for the species.
“What I saw is that there are a lot of axolotl carcasses next to this place” where they were released, he said. “When I pass, I think, ‘Ah, there was a ceremony. “”
It is unclear at this stage what action, if any, authorities will take in response to the mayors’ release of the axolotls in February. The Global Environmental Impunity Index Mexico 2020 showed that the country has “fragile environmental policies and insufficient institutional capacities to protect ecosystems”.
And the more time passes, the more people feel disconnected from the axolotl and other endangered species because new generations haven’t had a chance to see them up close, Camacho said.
They know them and recognize them as national icons, but until they touch them or see them in person, they won’t be able to truly feel their loss, he said, adding, “You have to touch it. to be able to develop a feeling of protection towards the animal.
According to a Mexican legend, if the axolotl is extinct, humanity will be extinct. Even if it is only a myth, for Barrea – and the chinamperos and the Mexican people – it represents a truth.
Barrera said the extinction of the axolotl and Xochimilco would feel like losing its identity, losing its history and losing its roots. “It’s like your grandfather is dying again or your ancestors are dying again,” Barrera said. “And it hurts, because Xochimilco is sick.”