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Is the teporingo really gone?

Scientists and conservationists should work on the preservation and reintegration of the teporingo
Is the teporingo really gone?
The scientific name of this tiny short-eared rabbit is Romerolagus diazi, given in honor of Matías Romero, an ambassador of Mexico in Washington DC - Photo: Taken from CONABIO's official Twitter page
27/10/2018
15:32
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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In pre-Hispanic cosmogony, man’s relationship with nature was a source of mysticism, beyond the use ancient societies could give to other living beings, these natural elements were seen as parts of the machinery of the Universe. Their space and needs were respected in order to guarantee the continuity of life.

Notably, in the Aztec culture (1345-1525), the Tochtli (Náhuatl for “rabbit”) was a symbol of fertility and constituted one of the 20 signs included in the calendar. Under this scenario, the wild rabbit from the volcanic mountain range surrounding the great city of Tenochtitlán, the teporingo (also known as zacatuche or volcano rabbit) lived in peace.

The scientific name of this tiny short-eared rabbit is Romerolagus diazi, given in honor of Matías Romero, an ambassador of Mexico in Washington DC who played a crucial role in the grant of permits for American naturalists E.W. Nelson and E.A. Goldman. The name of Agustín Díaz, once head of Ferrari Pérez and director of the Geographical and Exploring Commission of Mexico at the end of the 19th century was also honored. He was the first person to identify the so-called volcano rabbit, although the legitimacy of said identification was put in question by multiple organizations at the time.

Over a month ago, the teporingo was once again a matter of controversy when a series of dubious news were spread through several media outlets suggesting that the species had become extinct. In reality, the news referred to an investigation conducted by the Applied Biological Sciences Research Center (CICBA) at the National Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM) which reported on the absence of the species in the forest of Xinantécatl, near the Nevado de Toluca volcano. However, the extinction of the species as a whole is still far from being ascertained and it will all depend on the measures taken to protect the volcano rabbit.

Rafael Silvio Ramírez Álvarez, who specializes in priority species at the General Management of Analysis and Priorities of CONABIO, has pointed out that, though the teporingo is not yet extinct, it was declared an endangered species by the NOM 059-SEMARNAT-2010. It is considered to be the smallest lagomorph in Mexico and the second smallest worldwide. The species has become endangered mostly due to its limited distribution area. “The fact that they live only near volcanoes confines the species to a very limited space,” he stated, adding that bad environmental practices including deforestation and the expansion of agriculture with slash-and-burn techniques have caused their living space to grow even smaller.

The distribution areas that have been confirmed officially so far are the Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, as well as the biological corridor of Ajusco-Chichinautzin. “Several investigations from 2016 reported that the largest number of specimens was found in the aforementioned corridor, but this does not imply that the species’ population is increasing or that its distribution has grown.”

Depending on the subject of research regarding a given species, such as density or presence, the type of scientific studies conducted may vary, though Ramiro Álvarez claims that in the case of the teporingo, experts would have to conduct thorough monitoring of its presence periodically in order to confirm its extinction, though there is a growing need to protect their habitats from anthropogenic lacerations. “The deterioration of the Nevado de Toluca is no joke. In the end, it puts several local species in danger. It’s not just the teporingo.”

The reintroduction of the species

Doctor Gerardo Ceballos, a specialist from the Ecology Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who was recently chosen as member of the United States’ National Academy of Sciences, has spent years studying the volcano rabbit. He commented that, though there is no exact record on the number of teporingo specimens in their habitat, it is estimated that there are between five and six thousand individuals.

“The news about its extinction at the Nevado de Toluca area is a little strange, since this is not their only habitat. We conducted the last monitoring in 2008, but the presence of the teporingo has been missed in this region. “The Nevado de Toluca is a very large area and it is likely that the volcano rabbit can still be found therein, and if not, there is still potential for its reintroduction,” the expert stressed.

The reintroduction of a species is no easy task, and it would imply having the endangered species adapt in spite of the fact that many survival skills are lost during their time spent in captivity. However, data from the Mexican Association of Mammalian Zoology shows that, since 2012, Mexico has implemented several restoration and reintroduction programs for the protection of endangered species. The Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) has enhanced reintroduction programs in the last few years for the repopulation and recovery of endangered species.

It is the opinion of Ceballos that scientists and conservationists must become more active and creative regarding the preservation of animal species because the case of the teporingo is likely the first of many to come. On the other hand, Ramírez Álvarez commented that scientific strategies aimed at the preservation of wildlife should implement a more aggressive approach and foster an environmental awareness among society to remnd people that nature gives us numerous non-renewable resources.
 

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