Mexico City’s Rising Amphibian Star

A conservation project in Mexico City is trying to transform an odd-looking salamander into a "spokes-animal" for a threatened habitat. The axolotl is in danger of extinction in its native environment, but an effort to revive a green space in the city may help to improve its prospects.

Xochimilco"s boatmen are being trained as nature guides.© Courtney Humphries

Axolotls never fully metamorphose, retaining a plume of gills and tailfin that gives them the look of overgrown tadpoles. They are popular laboratory animals, and are also bred and sold as pets. But native axolotls live in the murky remnants of an ancient lake system that once filled the region around Mexico City. The lakes were crisscrossed with strips of earth called chinampas, part of a farming system that helped feed the Aztec empire. After the conquest of Mexico, the canals gave way to a burgeoning city, and the axolotl’s habitat ebbed to a small region of water south of the city in the district of Xochimilco.

The conservation program, led by scientists at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England and Universidad Autotñnoma Metropolitana in Xochi-milco, and funded by the British government’s Darwin Initiative, is part of a growing effort in species conservation: giving people who share habitat with animals a stake in preserving them, often through ecotourism. Ian Bride, program leader and a conservationist at the University of Kent, said that when local workers gain a fuller understanding of the history and ecology of their workplace "they are more likely to be able to make informed decisions."

Most such programs are based in remote jungles or grasslands, but this one is in the heart of a dense city. Xochimilco’s waterways are already a popular tourist destination, but they are seen as a place to party, not to enjoy wildlife. Teenagers, young couples, and families of Mexico City picnic and drink on brightly decorated barges, or trajineras, that cruise the canals.

The conservationists have enlisted the help of unlikely activists: boatmen who push the trajineras with long wooden poles. They are training the boatmen to become nature tour guides and to present Xochimilco as an important ecosystem. During a series of 10-day training programs over the past three years, boatmen have learned about Xochimilco’s native species and cultural history, and have practiced narrating the information to tourists. Raul Soto Chavarréa, a boatman who now helps lead the trainings, said that although transitioning to nature tourism takes a lot of effort, "it is im-proving our income."

As part of the project, the conservationists hope to make the axolotl a flagship species for the region. Although these salamanders are a bit obscure, they are unique to the region and have a long history in Aztec myth and cuisine. The group has worked with local artisans and tourism workers to bring axolotl education into classrooms and museums, and is trying to create a Day of the Axolotl. But the project has also given a renewed purpose to the boatmen.

Some of them are beginning to organize a union, devise a code of conduct, and even learn the ancient Aztec language, Nahuatl.

—Courtney Humphries