The Mexican women protecting axolotls

Despite all the obstacles they face on a daily basis, including lack of resources and sexism, “Ajolotario Cuemanco” has been rescuing and reproducing axolotls in Xochimilco for four years

The Mexican women protecting axolotls
Axolotls are endemic to Xochimilco – Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP
English 28/09/2019 17:12 Mexico City Iván Cruz Actualizada 18:11

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“Ajolotario Cuemanco” is a collective that for four years now has focused on saving axolotls from predators, pollution, and hunters that could make the species disappear.

“The extermination of axolotls started in the 80s. The Chinese introduced two kinds of fish [in Xochimilco]: carps and tilapias to counteract the plague of water lilies, but they did not measure the consequences and the fish devoured axolotls,” said Claudia Juárez in an interview with EL UNIVERSAL.

In the chinampa where the axolotl farm is located, nearly 90 specimens live. Some of them were rescued from the most polluted areas of the lake, others were born in captivity, and there are also some of them that arrived from donations from people who bought them in markets or aquariums.

“There are people that write to us in social networks to bring us axolotls they buy with the idea of rescuing them; we accept, but we explain to them that it is better to report the illegal sale to authorities for, since they pay, the business becomes profitable,” says the young woman.

Claudia says that sometimes the donated animals end up being salamanders since they are very similar to axolotls in their earliest stage and hunters sell them like that, a very usual fraud.

Hence, this group focuses on the preservation of the species native to Xochimilco, the black ones, of sticky texture, less known than the albino axolotl, of a pink color, which is more famous in popular culture.
 

Four against extinction
Nancy López, Nayeli Cortés, and sister Martha and Claudia Juárez are the members of the group “Ajolotario Cuemanco”. All of them are from Xochimilco and they have been friends for years.

Nayeli started the idea of the collective along with Alejandro Capultitla, owner of the chinampa that is home to the specimens.

For Nancy, preserving the species is to rescue local culture: “I cannot understand Xochimilco without its axolotl, without its chinampas, its Niñopa, its Most Beautiful Flower, or without its over 400 festivities; everything is linked with its identity; we want to make it known to new generations so that they join us in this effort.”

The first challenge was to prepare the land. They cleaned the weeds, removed the trash and installed ecologic restrooms for visitors, they put a roof and a small crafts shop.

Once the chinampa was ready, they continued with the most difficult part: Learning how to take care of axolotls. Nobody in the group knew anything about it, so Claudia went for training at the Cuemanco’s Biology and Aquaculture Research Center (CIBAC) of the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM).

Once she was ready, they built a wooden room with a tin roof where they put the first tanks with five axolotls.

Every day, the collective faces problems ranging from obtaining water, a lack of resources, adverse weather, and even sexism and discrimination from other people with whom they share the Cuemanco canals.

“Xochimilco is still a sexist town; most owners of chinampas are men. When we arrived here and until now, they have seen us with bad eyes; they have even robbed us and we are afraid of them taking the axolotls away,” says Claudia.

To cover the expenses for water, food, tanks, medicines, and consultations with biologists, they organize visits to the chinampa with schools and tourist groups as part of an integral tour through the canals. They also sell crafts, vegetables, and flowers they grow by themselves.

It is very complicated to preserve axolotls: They are very delicate creatures and they die easily.
 

A god on the verge of extinction
“It is said that there was a time in which gods had to sacrifice themselves, but Axolotl, one of them, said he would not do it. To avoid death, he jumped to Xochimilco lake and since then it survives hidden here, in the shape of the axolotl.”

But the mythical god is no longer the most common inhabitant of the canals, as it used to be some decades ago. The last census made by the research team of “Refugio Chinampa,” made up by UNAM academics, reported that the axolotl population went from 6,000 specimens per cubic meter in 1999 to barely 36 by late 2014.

In most recent expeditions, UAM biologists found 1 or 2 axolotls per cubic meter in the last two years.

In addition to predators and the illegal sale, axolotls must also survive Xochimilco’s traditions. Data from the Environment Ministry point out that axolotls are used since pre-Hispanic times as ingredients for tamales and home remedies.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Una publicación compartida de Ajolotario Cuemanco (@colectivoajolotariocuemanco) el

Their main characteristic is their ability to regenerate whole parts of their bodies; a property that was related to immortality, which endorses the belief in popular tradition that it was a divine entity.

Axolotl’s genetics are studied all over the world and many specimens leave the country to laboratories and universities of Germany, France, the United States, and Spain, among others.

In 2018, Vienna’s Institute of Molecular Pathology Research, along with U.S. Gettysburg College, published an article detailing the decoding of the axolotl’s genome.

They discovered that their DNA has 32 million base pairs, 10 times more than humans. Until now, this is the biggest gene sequence identified in a living creature, and they think it contains the secret for cell regeneration, but the process is yet to be understood.

The future is in farms.
In recent years, the environment in the lake area of Xochimilco has worsened due to garbage and pollution generated by tourism.

“In clean-ups, we find glasses, bags, bottles, beer cartons, and even condoms. Tourism must be aware and respectful; this is not just about partying,” said Claudia with concern.

Axolotls require very specific conditions to survive, for instance, they need cold water and dark spaces, for their eyes are not adapted to tolerate big amounts of light.

“There are many aquariums that display them in totally illuminated tanks so that people can take pictures; that heat kills them and the owners buy more, some of them illegal, to substitute them immediately,” she explains.

Sanctions for illegal wild species trafficking in Mexico range from the suspension of the business (in the case of stores), fines for up to 50,000 minimum wages, and up to 20 years in prison.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Una publicación compartida de Ajolotario Cuemanco (@colectivoajolotariocuemanco) el

The only way to purchase an axolotl for home care is via Semarnat. Those interested must be trained and keep in touch with biologists for supervision, but in this collective, they insist that they must not be considered pets.

Nayeli Cortés says that “What people must notice is that this is a species in danger of extinction, not something you can have at home. Here, along with other axolotl farms in the area and UAM experts, we want to achieve their reproduction in safe spaces to avoid their disappearance.”

In “Ajolotario Cuemanco some specimens have already reproduced: “A female can deposit over 500 embryos in her life, from those, approximately 280 survive, but only about 80 reach mature age,” explains Claudia.

They consider that the deterioration of the lake makes it impossible for the axolotl to come back to its habitat and therefore the future of the species s in farms.

Claudia thinks that people and these amphibians can live together in the same ecosystem and compares human nature to that of axolotls thinking that “just as the axolotl, we regenerate each day, not physically, but emotionally, we both can improve,” she concludes.

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