Protecting Mexico’s Iconic Salamander Means Saving one of the Country’s Most Important Wetlands

Lake Xochimilco’s canals and island farms, on the southern tip of Mexico City, are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. They are also imperiled by overdevelopment, pollution and climate.

A person holds a melanoid axolotl before releasing it into the wild as part of a campaign to preserve the endangered species and its habitat. On Feb. 16, 2022 In Mexico City, Mexico. Credit: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images
A person holds a melanoid axolotl before releasing it into the wild as part of a campaign to preserve the endangered species and its habitat. On Feb. 16, 2022 In Mexico City, Mexico. Credit: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

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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. 

After a ritual ceremony with prehispanic flutes and incense, mayors from different wards of the city dropped six bred-in-captivity axolotl (pronounced AK-suh-laa-tl) into the lake as a statement of commitment to preserve 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.” 

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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 did not respond to a request for comment. 

But the battle to save the axolotl speaks to a larger issue: saving one of the most controversial wetlands in the country. 

Lake Xochimilco is the only remaining lake of five that once formed the lacustrine basin of the Valley of Mexico, an area of canals and island farms that comprise more than 6,000 acres of protected wetlands 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. 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 has printed it on the nation’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 supply the water needs of 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. Now experts report the presence of fecal coliform, streptococci and 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.”

The lake gets drier with every year that goes by, he added. “Every year it goes down, and down and down. We don’t know when this will stop.” 

A man performs a ceremony in the canal as part of a campaign to preserve the endangered axolotl and its habitat on Feb. 16, 2022  In Mexico City, Mexico. Credit: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images
A man performs a ceremony in a canal as part of a campaign to preserve the endangered axolotl salamander and its habitat on Feb. 16, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. A release of captive-bred salamanders into the lake that month drew controversy due to claims that the water quality would make it difficult for the axolotl to survive and the release failed to follow proper permitting and environmental protocols. Credit: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

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 consistently decreased its environmental budget, from a little over $4 billion in 2013 to $1.5 billion 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 end of last year, the Mexico City government completed the construction of a bridge that divided the Xochimilco wetland, fragmenting its 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. 

So far, up to 40 isolated chinampas have been restored, with approximately three 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.  

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. Sometimes, the Xochimilco government contributes as well, but in much smaller amounts.  

“We need 10 times more to start calling more chinamperos, because everything is going to ensure that the chinampero lives with dignity,” said Zambrano. But new generations of farmers are not as interested in continuing to work in the 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 the locals restore and live off their chinampas is key to saving the axolotl and the lake. This agriculture system improves the quality of the water because the food is produced without fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, Zambrano installs filters that clean the water. 

His work also helps stop urban overdevelopment on the lake and can make the chinampas a sustainable source of food to feed Mexico City. Meanwhile, the chinampas provide a refuge for the axolotl and other species. “The axolotl is the standard-bearer, so to speak, of the entire troop that lives in the chinampa,” Barrera said. 

But releasing the axolotl must be done properly, with appropriate permits and research. “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 has seen other people who breed axolotl without the necessary environmental permits, and perform the reintroduction ceremony as a way to attract people and tourists, with 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 becomes extinct, humanity will become extinct. Even if this is just a myth, for Barrea—and the chinamperos and the Mexican people—it represents a truth. 

Barrera said that the extinction of the axolotl and Xochimilco would feel like losing his identity, losing his history and losing his 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.”