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Save the axolotls: how one scientist is battling the race to extinction

Alongside the residents, we created the Chinampa Shelter Project, creating refuge around the channels and the islands, which also created refuge for the axolotls.

  • 4 months ago
  • February 28, 2024
8 min read
Dr. Luis Zambrano, director of the Ecological Restoration Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that to rescue the axolotl, we must rescue its habitat. | Photo courtesy of Luis Zambrano Dr. Luis Zambrano, director of the Ecological Restoration Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that to rescue the axolotl, we must rescue its habitat. | Photo courtesy of Luis Zambrano
Dr. Luis Zambrano is working hard to save the axolotls and their ecosystem
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Dr. Luis Zambrano serves as the director of the Ecological Restoration Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and has dedicated more than 20 years to studying the axolotl, a species of salamander that is in danger of extinction. He popularized the Adopt an Axolotl campaign to raise critical funds for his project. Zambrano and his team seek both to rescue the axolotl and its environment in Xochimilco, south of Mexico City. He is a founding member of the Mexican Society of Limnology and a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences.
Background Information
Xochimilco, which in Nahuatl means Field of Flowers, includes a series of rainwater channels that have existed since pre-Hispanic times when the Valley of Mexico was made up almost entirely of lakes and lagoons. On December 11, 1987, UNESCO declared Xochimilco a World Heritage Site; located south of Mexico City. In 1998, in Lake Xochimilco, there were 6,000 axolotls per square kilometer, according to a study carried out by the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM). In 2014, the Institute of Biology (IB) of the UNAM carried out a new analysis and detected 35 amphibians of this species per square kilometer, a worrying figure. Today, after tireless work by the University’s scientists, they have successfully increased the number to 100 axolotls per square kilometer, yet extinction is still a concern as development continues in the area.

XOCHIMILCO, México ꟷ In the early 2000s, while studying the effects of invasive carp in Xochimilco, the government commissioned me to conduct a census of axolotls. After decades of environmental degradation, I wanted to know how many axolotls remained in the last stronghold of the species. I felt devastated to find these creatures were on the verge of extinction. In less than 20 years, the axolotl population diminished from 6,000 to only 36 per square kilometer in the wild.

“How did it get this far,” I wondered. I refused to be part of the generation devastating the 2,000-year-old ecosystem in Xochimilco; to be part of the perverse game of throwing away this jewel for something lesser.

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Small islands, like floating farmlands born of the Aztecs, become soccer fields and party halls

It was the late eighties. Before dawn fell, the residents of Xochimilco readied for work. Families prepared soil for cultivation, gathered crops, removed weeds, and tended plants. By the end of October, they spent nights cutting marigold flowers for the Day of the Dead, sleeping amongst the chinampas [the crops along the lakebed] underneath the stars. Those small, artificial islands represented an agricultural system created by the Aztecs, remaining a part of our very identity.

While at once, farmers used these parcels to grow vegetables, for some decades the chinampas changed in purpose. They became soccer fields, restaurants, speakeasies, party halls, and temazcals or sweat lodges. The city began to voraciously eat away the wetland and destroy it. The mutation of the chinampas caused irreparable changes in productivity and the biodiversity of the region suffered. In an ecosystem, everything unites like a great chain. If the chinampas were in danger of extinction, so were the axolotls, the iconic species of Xochimilco.

Little by little, inhabitants abandoned the chinampas. They became unprofitable and cultivation – their main source of income – ceased. The water quality dropped, going from transparent to cloudy. When I started my study as an environmentalist, I considered restoring the habitat, but we were not in the beautiful island of Borneo or the wild ecosystem of the Serengeti. Xochimlco became absorbed as a district of Mexico City with 22 million inhabitants and growing. The factors working against us seemed overwhelming.

Scientist buys land, moves in, and fights to preserve the ecosystem

Traveling back and forth to Xochimilco, I began working with residents there. We exchanged information, technologies, and ideas to regenerate the environment. At first, they seemed reticent and untrusting. Researchers and academicians often passed through but rarely stayed. Yet, with each meeting, I looked in their eyes and saw their anguish. I made a promise: to work side-by-side. You cannot simply tell a farmer their crops will improve; they need to see it. Slowly, they accepted me and even began to believe.

I did something radical; I purchased my own chinampa, stopped traveling, settled there permanently, and began to grow crops. Alongside the residents, we created the Chinampa Shelter Project, creating refuge around the channels and the islands, which also created refuge for the axolotls. We emphasized traditional agricultural production without the use of fertilizers and water-polluting pesticides. For more than a decade, we tirelessly committed ourselves to the task.

We had a foundation to build on. The Mexican government long agreed on conserving the habitat. UNESCO already declared the wetlands a World Heritage Site and the entire system was designated a natural protected area. Yet, none of that stopped the hyper-urbanization taking place, or the plummeting of the axolotl population.

By law, no one could build permanent structures on the chinampas. Farmers traveled there by canoe. However, day in and day out, I saw boats loaded with construction materials passing through. Cheap land with access to Mexico City remained sought after, increasingly integrating Xochimilco with the urban setting. The consequences proved dire.

Despite the region’s protected status as a natural habitat, construction powers on

Over the years, I watched countless chinampas converted to businesses centered on floating parties. These epic, glamorous, excessive constructions reveal a sad reality. One showcases a Texan-style grill with picnic tables. Some of them house axolotls and for a small fee, you can look upon hundreds of these beautiful creatures living in tanks. It feels like a sick joke.

A lawsuit arose when some builders began filling in part of the wetlands to build a bridge for vehicles. In desperation, we protested, but the bridge was erected anyway. With tears in our eyes, we looked back and forth at one another. For me, it felt so strange, and I considered throwing in the towel. “Why would our own government do this to us,” I wondered. The battle was unfair – unequal – and it felt bloody.

Nevertheless, we continue to fight, striving to make traditional practices profitable for the chinampas. We developed a product certification program and participate with a culinary school to publicize the virtues of vegetables grown in the chinampas. We also launched the Adopt an Axolotl campaign, raising funds for the community. For us, the effort goes beyond saving an axolotl; it is about reconnecting them with their natural habitat and instilling that idea in people’s minds; to value wetland farming systems.

A third important component of our work includes carbon capture. The amount of carbon captured in the chinampas remains impressive. We represent important protections against climate change. The disappearance of the chinampas – environmentally and socially – would be devastating.

Saving the axolotls by saving the ecosystem

Every day, I work on this project to save the ecosystem in Xochimilco, working with the farmers of the chinampas and evaluating problems. Our efforts advance slowly but the progress of construction beats us down, threatening our survival. Before, we faced a few irregular projects. Now we see mega projects looming on the horizon.

Losing this region to development means losing identity, biodiversity, and the benefits of the ecosystem; it will only heighten the environmental crisis. Already, a lack of water plagues Mexico City. The survival of the axolotls hangs in the balance by a thread that could be cut at any moment.

Putting our dream into action, we created 36 locations of refuge for biodiversity, 71 biofilters to improve water quality, 40 chinampas, and 5.5 kilometers of canals. Our goal is to reach 100 kilometers of these channels. About 80 to 90 percent of the chinampas remain abandoned, and must be nurtured to encourage the repopulation of the axolotls, bringing them out of danger of extinction.

As I walk through the chinampas, the sunshine embraces me. I breathe deeply and feel peace. In this sanctuary, I do not sense a city of 20 million people sits nearby. Instead, I feel transported far from civilization, surrounded by immensity and nature. Traversing Xochimilco feels like a trip away from time itself. In this wonderful ecosystem, birds fly and sing, amphibians and reptiles dart, and leafy vegetation erupts. The water runs clear and tranquility mixes with the 2,000-year-old ancestry of the place.

Corn, beans, squash, lettuce and chili peppers abound. Flowers bloom. Looking around I can feel, at a visceral level, I am part of this place – this majestic environment – and excitement fills me. I could never leave it and my fight will continue.

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