The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is the world’s largest amphibian, weighing in at more than 140 pounds and measuring up to 5.9 feet in length.
Despite playing an important role in Chinese culture for centuries—it is thought that the animals even inspired the famous Taoist yin and yang symbol—the salamander has now been all but driven to extinction in the wild, according to a landmark new study published in the journal Current Biology.
The animals are under threat from habitat loss and human over-consumption: They are used in traditional Chinese medicine and have also become a highly coveted luxury food item in recent years. While they are routinely harvested by commercial breeding farms, demand for their parts is growing so fast that most giant salamanders end up being poached in the wild—despite this being forbidden under Chinese law—driving their decline.
Over the course of four years, researchers from global conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and the Chinese Academy of Science’s Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) undertook possibly the most extensive wildlife survey in China to date to assess the precarious situation of the salamander, investigating 97 sites in 16 of the country’s 23 provinces.
Their findings showed that populations of the animal, which were once widespread, are now significantly depleted or eradicated entirely, while illegal poaching has become widespread.
“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,” Samuel Turvey, a co-author of the study from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, said in a statement. “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.”
The amphibians—which are currently listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—belong to an ancient group of salamanders that diverged from their closest relatives over 170 million years ago. They are considered a “living fossil” because, in that time, they have changed relatively little and thus scientists consider them to be a global conservation priority.
Another related study, also published in Current Biology, found that Chinese giant salamanders aren’t just one species, but five, and possibly as many as eight, some of which are now extremely rare and perhaps already extinct in the wild.
These findings may have significant implications for conservation efforts. This is because the country’s Ministry of Agriculture supports widespread releases of farmed giant salamanders into the wild.
While this measure is intended to boost numbers, releasing the animals in this manner without any regard for their genetic differences may be putting the salamander at even more risk, according to the researchers. The release of farmed animals risks mixing genetic lineages and spreading disease.
The researchers recommend the establishment of captive populations of genetically distinct lineages specifically designed for conservation breeding.
“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,” Fang Yan, a co-author of the second study, from KIZ said in a statement.
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