In February, a crowd gathered around Mexico City’s Lake Xochimilco to witness the release of endemic salamanders called axolotls, culturally revered amphibians at risk of extinction because of the lake’s pollution.
Following a ritual ceremony using prehispanic flutes, incense, and prehispanic flutes, mayors from different wards of city dropped six bredin-captivity axolotls into the lake as a sign of their commitment to protecting the species and its habitat.
But Óscar Camacho Flores, founder of the national civil organization Preservacf A.C., called it “a sacrificial ceremony rather than one to ask for their salvation, because it was obvious that they were going to die.”
Late last month, Camacho filed a lawsuit in the Attorney General’s Office against José Carlos Acosta Ruiz, the Xochimilco community mayor, for illegal environmental actions and animal cruelty, given the contamination in Lake Xochimilco (pronounced sochi-MILK-o). They didn’t have the required environmental permits, Camacho claims, nor did they follow the suggested protocols to release the axolotls. Acosta Ruiz didn’t respond to a request to comment.
The fight to save the axolotl is just one aspect of a larger problem: saving one the most controversial wetlands in the nation.
Lake Xochimilco, the last remaining lake of five, once formed the lacustrine Basin of the Valley of Mexico. This area of canals is home to island farms and wetlands that cover more than 6,000 acres on the southern tip of Mexico City. It also holds the lasting chinampas—small, rectangular islands first built by the Aztecs for agriculture centuries ago using willow trees, lilies and mud.
The lake also serves as a respite for migratory birds like pelicans and herons. It is home to 2 percent of the world’s biological diversity: around 1,700 species of plants, 57 species of reptiles, 320 species of birds, 70 species of mammals and 20 species of amphibians. These species include the axolotl, which is one of 250 that are endemic. The salamander is such a cultural icon among the Mexican people that the Bank of Mexico has printed it on the nation’s 50-peso bill.
Lake Xochimilco, once rich in freshwater and biodiversity, has been reduced down to a few waterways because of unregulated urban development. The government uses it as a water supply for the growing city.
To counteract the imbalance that the excessive extraction of water has had on the lake’s ecosystem, the government began injecting water of secondary quality from a treatment plant in el Cerro de la Estrella in the 1970s.
Around the same time, the Mexican government decided to introduce carp and tilapia—alien invasive species that feed on the axolotl—as a means of subsistence for the local people. Experts now report the presence of fecal bacteria, streptococci, enterococci, heavy Metals and Endocrine Disruptors among other pollutants.
“Imagine the quality of that fish because […] all the contaminants that are in the water go to the animal,” says Felipe Barrera, 46, a local chinampa farmer who has witnessed the lake’s decline over his lifetime. “My father still told me that you could swim [in the lake], about the fish that were there, that you could eat them with complete confidence.”
He said that the lake gets dryer with each year. “Every year it goes down, and down and down. We don’t know when this will 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 from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, whose work focuses on restoring Xochimilco and saving the axolotl.
The Mexican government has been steadily decreasing its environmental budget, which was just over $4Billion in 2013 and $1.5Billion in 2020. Currently, the budget has been increased to about $1.8 billion, still not enough to meet the country’s environmental challenges.
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Meanwhile, at the close of last year, Mexico City’s government completed construction of a bridge which divided the Xochimilco wetlands, fragmenting their hydrological flow.
The social inequities and economic difficulties facing Xochimilcans led Zambrano to implement project Refugio Chinampa in 2018. He knew that taking care of the chinampas and cleaning the lake’s water would make way for the return of the axolotl and other species, such as the fish acocil and charal, so he enlisted the help of local chinamperos like Barrera.
Up to 40 isolated chinampas were restored so far. There is approximately eight miles of refuge for the axolotl. Zambrano hopes to restore more of the canals in the future to create a network. However, he is concerned about funding.
His effort to date has received most of its funds from the Culture Secretariat of Mexico, which became concerned about Xochimilco after it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987. The secretariat began giving around $318,000 annually at first, then reduced that amount to a little over $227,000. The secretariat initially gave around $318,000 annually, then reduced that amount to just over $227,000.
“We need 10 times more to start calling more chinamperos, because everything is going to ensure that the chinampero lives with dignity,” said Zambrano. However, new generations of farmers don’t want to continue working in the chinampas due to the difficulty of maintaining them within a polluted environment, and the harsh conditions they would have had to live in.
Ironically, the key to saving the lake and the axolotl is helping the locals rebuild and live off their chinampas. Because the food is grown without pesticides and fertilizers, it improves the water quality. Zambrano also installs water filters.
His efforts also help stop urban development on the lake. They can make the chinampas an sustainable source of food for Mexico City. The chinampas also provide refuge for the axolotls and other species. “The axolotl is the standard-bearer, so to speak, of the entire troop that lives in the chinampa,” Barrera said.
However, the proper permits and research are required to release the axolotl. “A reintroduction process has to be very well planned, especially for species in danger of extinction,” Zambrano said. This entails following Mexico’s environmental regulations and international protocols from International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has placed the axolotl on its critically endangered species category.
What the mayors did in releasing the axolotl in February wasn’t new, Zambrano said. He said he had seen other people breed axolotls in the past without the required environmental permits. They also perform the reintroduction ceremonies to attract tourists and people. This has clear consequences for the species.
“What I have seen is that there are many carcasses of axolotls next to that place” where they have been released, he said. “When I pass by, I think, ‘Ah, there was a ceremony.’”
It’s unclear at this point what, if any, action the authorities will take in response to the mayors’ release of the axolotl’s in February. The Global Environmental Impunity Index Mexico 2020 showed the country has “fragile environmental policies and insufficient institutional capacities to protect ecosystems.”
And the more time passes, the more disconnected people feel from the axolotl and other endangered species because the new generations haven’t had the chance to see them up close, Camacho said.
They know of them, and they 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 need to touch it so you can grow a feeling of protection towards the animal.”
According to a Mexican legend if the axolotl dies, then humanity will also die. Even if this is just a myth, for Barrea—and the chinamperos and the Mexican people—it represents a truth.
Barrera said that the extinctions Xochimilco/axolotl would feel like losing one’s identity, his history, and losing one’s roots. “It is as if your grandfather died again or as if your ancestors died again,” said Barrera. “And it hurts, because Xochimilco is sick.”
Source: Inside Climate News