At first glance, Xochimilco seems little more than a tourist trap, a Mexican version of Venice. Colorful gondolas called trajineras hold Mexican families lunching on tacos and mariachi ensembles looking for a buck.
Yet beyond the tourist route, narrow canals where marshland is accessible only by canoe and where trees form canopies across the waterways, Dr. Zambrano and his team are rebuilding channels to restore axolotl communities in the wild.
It seems a race against time. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the axolotl as a threatened species. Zambrano’s research suggests it could disappear in coming years if nothing is done.
On a recent day, a group of students measured the growth of salamanders that have been living in a refuge at the edge of a farmer’s property, surrounded by irises that act as a natural filter and within nets to fight off the tilapia and carp that were introduced into the waters more than two decades ago and now feed on axolotl eggs whenever they can find them.
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.
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.