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Saving an Aztec salamander

An effort to save the axolotl – a type of salamander – is also a bid to preserve an ancient culture.

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Initially, the scientists expected to breed the animals in labs and reintroduce them into the water. But Zambrano says that would reduce genetic variability and increase risks of chytrid fungus, which causes a disease that has been killing amphibians worldwide. Instead, they are breeding them in their natural habitat, creating five experimental channels now, with more channels planned.

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Success depends on the full support of the locals, says Elsa Valiente, who leads the axolotl project on the banks of Lake Xochimilco, where some 1,000 farmers and 200 fishermen are registered to fish. “It cannot work without their commitment,” she says.

Getting locals and biologists on the same page is not always an easy task. When students here think of an axolotl, they think of science. Locals say they think about a favorite lunch of the past – axolotl tamales, served whole in cornmeal and covered with corn leaves.

But a handful of area farmers who grow spinach and cilantro on plots of land called chinampas talk proudly of the salamander’s role in the great legends of their history: The Aztec god Xolotl is believed to have turned into an axolotl while fleeing his enemies. “I don’t want to lose this part of our culture,” says Anastasio Santana, on whose land the biologists built their first experimental channel.

Farmers are reaping indirect benefits from the world’s interest in their ancient creature. If the project is going to succeed, ecological degradation, from uncontrolled population growth and Xochimilco’s role as a receptacle for wastewater from nearby treatment plants, must be reversed.

So the project includes a series of conservation training. It has also purchased a compost machine to give farmers and fishermen an alternative source of income and supported their efforts to sell their herbs and vegetables citywide as a “locally grown” option for urbanites.

The project also seeks to resume work with the municipality to help remove the tilapia and carp that nibble at the edges of the chinampas.
Those aren’t the only goals, though. Local farmer Dionizio Eslava, who heads a producer’s association in Lake Xochimilco, sees the project as a parallel effort to re-create ancient life on the floating gardens of Xochimilco, where many today have opted to grow more lucrative flowers in greenhouses instead of food.

His group wants to work with farmers to get rid of pesticides, create compost, and reforest stretches of land. “We cannot preserve only our biodiversity,” Mr. Eslava says, “but our culture, too.”

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.