Ben Tapley

Where have all the Chinese giant salamanders gone?

Posted: 24th May, 2018

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has worked alongside local partners including the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) to conduct the most extensive wildlife survey seen in China to date. The team searched 97 sites over four years, providing first-hand evidence of the desperate plight faced by Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamanders (Andrias davidianus).

Although depicted in Chinese culture for thousands of years (even according to legend inspiring the iconic yin-yang motif), Chinese giant salamanders have more recently become a highly coveted delicacy. The amphibians, which can grow up to 1.8m long, are routinely taken from the wild to stock commercial breeding farms, even though Chinese legislation prohibits harvesting from the wild.

Report co-author Dr Samuel Turvey from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology said: “The overexploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time-span. Unless coordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world’s largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy.”

Co-author Dr Fang Yan from KIZ said: “Together with addressing wider pressures such as poaching for commercial farms and habitat loss, it’s essential that suitable safeguards are put in place to protect the unique genetic lineage of these amazing animals, which dates back to the time of the dinosaurs.” Chinese giant salamanders belong to an ancient group of salamanders that diverged from their closest relatives over 170 million years ago.

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture supports widespread releases of farmed animals as a conservation measure, however this approach risks mixing different species and spreading disease. The study’s authors instead call for the establishment of captive populations of genetically distinct lineages for conservation breeding.

Chinese giant salamanders are a flagship species for China's freshwater river systems. Efforts to conserve these charismatic amphibians will play a vital role in protecting the region’s habitats and biodiversity, as well as freshwater resources for the people of China.

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