Monday, October 15, 2018

Guest Blogger: Adam Bland of the Chester Zoo and the Amazing Partnership to Save the Critically Endangered Lake Patzcuaro Salamander

During April, as part of an on going research project, I was incredibly lucky to visit central Mexico in order to collect data and meet some partners in an unusual conservation project aiming to conserve the Critically Endangered Lake Patzcuaro Salamander, Ambystoma dumerilii.  A small film crew joined us on our visit, and since our return the story of this project has received international media coverage, which is great for Salamander conservation and awareness!  

At the monastery. Chester Zoo conservationists Gerardo Garcia and Adam Bland work with Mexican NUNS to save a rare species of salamander

The unusual twist on this project, which has lead to gaining lots of media attention, is the Monastery of Nuns which maintain the largest breeding colony of the species in captivity, and are likely highly responsible for this species continued existence since the population almost became extinct in Lake Patzcuaro due to introduced fish, pollution and exploitation.  The nuns have been breeding this species in captivity for many years, as it is an ingredient in a traditional medicine produced at the Monastery believed to treat respiratory illnesses.  It is important to keep in mind that successful conservation may involve compromise; it is very easy to think of the negative when hearing that this species remains an ingredient in this traditional medicine, but if it wasn’t for it’s production there is a high probability that this iconic species would be extinct today.  I have seen no greater care and attention to captive salamanders than by the nuns of Patzcuaro, who claim to know each individual by eye (that’s over 200 salamanders!), and told us how they cried when one of their 16 year old salamanders died, the importance of their colony is fully understood; both culturally and for conservation, and what they are achieving is effectively a sustainable use of a species whilst maintaining a large colony with high conservation importance.
At the monastery. Chester Zoo conservationists Gerardo Garcia and Adam Bland work with Mexican NUNS to save a rare species of salamander
Due to this potential perception, gaining permission to see their colony of salamanders is not always easy, even when visiting with trusted members of the project, I was still a new person to be involved so before being permitted to see and work with the colony, we had to have a long discussion about the project and what the next steps were which we were trying to achieve.   Not speaking Spanish made things a little bit tricky, so I tried to impress by wearing my Amphibian Foundation shirt, hoping that having an Ambystoma printed onto my clothes would translate my love for salamanders!  Safe to say that it worked as a great ice breaker and I was seemingly accepted to be involved with working with their colony as part of our data collection, contributing towards the long term conservation plan for this species. 
Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico is home to the critically endangered Lake Patzcuaro salamander. Chester Zoo conservationists have teamed up with Mexican NUNS to save the species.
It is a very surreal experience visiting the monastery, but it really shows how anybody can be involved in conservation, and also that conservation may work in many different ways.  Although the largest colony belongs to the Monastery, this project is a collaboration between multiple institutions including the University of Michoacán, the Centro Regional de Investigaciones Pesqueras and Chester Zoo.  Between these partners work is supported both with captive colonies and directly within the lake; conducting surveys to assess the remaining population and its distribution within Lake Patzcuaro, and also the current condition and issues surrounding the quality and future of the lake itself.  All of this effort and collaboration aims to secure the future of this incredible and unique species of Ambystoma

Lake Patzcuaro Salamanders at Chester Zoo