Conservationists race to save Chinese giant salamander

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When Liang Congjie, known for founding Friends of Nature, was invited to an ecological festival in Zhangjiajie in western Hunan Province, he was astonished that a dish featuring the Chinese giant salamander was served to him at a welcome dinner. Angered by the disregard for wildlife conservation, Liang decided to leave.

The Chinese giant salamander, an amphibian endemic to China, is commonly known as wawayu in Chinese because its vocalizations bear a striking resemblance to the crying of a human baby. Often regarded as a delicacy, over-hunting, consumption, habitat loss and water pollution have driven the species to the brink of extinction.

Labeled as a “freshwater giant panda”, Chinese giant salamanders have been listed as a protected species since 1988. Over 17 nature reserves designated for the protection of Chinese giant salamanders have been established since 1965.

In the late 20th century, the salamander was also present in Taiwan and was considered a delicacy, resulting in large numbers being caught and smuggled from mainland China.

In an effort to save the giant salamanders, Green Camel Bell, an NGO based in Gansu Province, partnered with the Zoological Society of London, holding a Conservation Action Plan Workshop for Chinese giant salamanders in Gansu from Oct 23 to 27. Research institutes, conservation groups and government officials gathered to share research knowledge, conservation experience and lessons learned, and sought a strategy to give the species a sustainable future.

Starting in 2013, the Zoological Society of London organized a nationwide search across China for wild giant salamanders. The team spent four years searching 97 sites in 16 provinces, but only found traces of salamanders at four sites.

In contrast to the dire situation of the wild giant salamander population, the captive breeding farms for giant salamanders have been thriving, which has led to several million giant salamanders being bred in captivity. The purpose of these farms is to supply a sustainable source of salamanders for food. However, stocks have not always been well managed and instances of cross breeding have been common.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the Chinese government banned the trade and consumption of wild animals, including the trade and consumption of giant salamanders. Local governments have since encouraged and compensated farms to release some of their salamanders into the wild.

However, such practices have raised concerns from scientists, with some arguing that cross bred salamanders will negatively impact the genetic integrity of each distinct species; and releasing a non-local species would spell the demise of remaining native inhabitants.

So far, it is still a matter of debate how many species of giant salamander exist in China. It is accepted that there are at least two: the Chinese giant salamander and South China giant salamander. Their international cousins are the Japanese giant salamander, and North American giant salamander which is also known as the hellbender.

During the Trump administration, the hellbender salamander was removed from the federal protection list, despite the fact that the wild population has been in sharp decline. In 2021, five US environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit demanding the hellbender be re-added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act protection list. In early September 2023, a federal judge ruled that the removal of the hellbender’s protection status was “arbitrary and unlawful”.

The victory was celebrated by several riverkeeper groups who also joined the lawsuit. “Hellbenders are like the canary in the coal mine,” said Robin Broder, acting executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, “they are incredibly sensitive to pollutants and the destruction of their habitats”.

In Japan, the Japanese giant salamander is doing relatively better since exploitation for food has become less common due to improved conservation awareness. However, the introduction of the Chinese giant salamander, which is bigger in size, into Japanese waterways has caused a crossbreeding problem. In 1972, the same year China and Japan normalized their diplomatic relations, over 800 Chinese giant salamanders were sold to Japan. Subsequent imports over the following years and releases into the wild have turned the Chinese giant salamander into an invasive species in Japan.

Conservationists searching for Chinese giant salamanders in the wild (Photo: Chen Shu)

Inaugurated in 2004, the annual Japan Giant Salamander Conservation Conference convenes researchers, conservation NGOs, government officials and students in Japan to discuss various issues related to the species. The 2023 conference was held in Kozagawa, Wakayama Prefecture, on Oct 28 and 29.

Wang Jie, a scientist from Chengdu Institute of Biology, China Academy of Sciences, travelled to southern Japan in 2014 to conduct research on the Japanese giant salamander. Wang’s work was welcomed and assisted by Japanese researchers in the hope that their support would benefit efforts to protect the Chinese giant salamander. Wang later published numerous articles about his findings in Japan.

International support for research and conservation of the Chinese giant salamander was aided by exhibits of the species in overseas zoos and publicity on its plight for survival. Chinese giant salamanders at both London Zoo in the United Kingdom and Ocean Park in Hong Kong were salamanders that had been rescued from smugglers.

The Darwin Initiative and World Wide Fund for Nature have both funded research projects on the Chinese giant salamander. With funding from the Darwin Initiative, the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program has awarded two-year fellowships to several Chinese young conservation leaders including Chen Shu and Yan Fang who have worked tirelessly to ensure the future survival of Chinese giant salamanders.

Yan Fang studied the Chinese giant salamander while pursuing a PhD at Kunming Institute of Zoology. In the summer of 2012, Yan conducted a field survey in Qinghai, with an attempt to locate relict Chinese giant salamanders on the Tibetan Plateau (its existence in the area was previously recorded in 1966). Ning Zuomei and Mao Jing of the Snow Alliance, a Qinghai-based environmental NGO, travelled to Kunming in 2019 and recorded Yan giving a special lecture on the Chinese giant salamander to be used for an online course on biodiversity conservation funded by the Zoological Society of London.

Zhao Zhong, a board member of the Snow Alliance and founder of Green Camel Bell, has been working on nature conservation in southern Gansu for over a decade. His interest in the conservation of the Chinese giant salamander in the wild and in efforts to find alternative solutions for existing giant salamander farms in southern Gansu led him to organize the late October conference. Zhao Zhong believes that protecting the livelihoods of local communities will help win more support for conservation work from locals.

Zhilan Foundation, an environmental grant maker with a focus on endangered species, has provided two major grants for the research and conservation of the Chinese giant salamander in Zhangjiajie. In February 2020, the Zhangjiajie government outlawed the trade and consumption of Chinese giant salamanders. Though serving Chinese giant salamander as a delicacy is a die-hard custom in western Hunan Province, conservation efforts and growing public awareness will hopefully help turn the tide and stop them becoming extinct.

Photo provided by Green Camel Bell

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