This cute, not-so-little animal is the Andrias davidianus, or the Chinese Giant Salamander (CGS). As the largest amphibian in the world, the CGS can grow up to six feet long, though on average they’re around four feet long. The salamander has an important role in the ecosystem as a predator, but holds an even more important role as a mascot for the restoration and preservation of rivers across China. Its size makes it unique but also a target for poachers; once thriving in dozens of freshwater rivers and streams across China, the CGS can now only be found in a few rivers.
Like many amphibians, the CGS breathes by absorbing oxygen through its skin, even evolving to have extra folds of skin to absorb more oxygen to support its unusually large size. Fast-flowing rivers provide frequent renewal of dissolved oxygen for the CGS to utilize. It feasts mostly on small crustaceans, fish, and worms, and is nocturnal outside of mating season.
Humans are the largest threats to the survival of the CGS. River dams block the salamanders from moving up and down stream, limiting the availability of food, habitat, and mates. Dams can also divert the flow of a river and destroy a salamander's home or den of eggs. However, the largest factor in population decline is that salamander meat is in high demand: it is considered a delicacy by many and used in traditional medicine. Hunting began in the 1970s and quickly turned to illegal poaching as the population dwindled. To keep up with demand, salamander farms opened and expanded.
At first glance, farms seem like a good thing. They should alleviate the demand for wild salamander and make eating salamander more sustainable. Shouldn't the approximately two million salamanders in farms be enough to meet demand? As it turns out, despite the massive number available on farms, poaching still takes place, often in protected land. Farms also tend to have pathogens that spread easily due to their high density. Salamanders frequently escape, potentially exposing the remaining wild population to pathogens to which it has no immunity. Bred salamanders also often have little genetic variation, and farm-escapees that breed with the wild population introduce muddled genes and crossings of lineages.
The CGS was categorized as Critically Endangered in 2004 and its wild population has remained very low. In fact, while it is difficult to accurately survey numbers, a survey conducted in 2013 found that it is possible that there is no longer a completely wild population—salamanders found were most likely escapees from nearby farms, or ones that were released in a misguided conservation effort. It is devastating to know that we have driven another one-of-a-kind species to the brink of extinction. However, there is some hope for conserving and growing the wild CGS population.
The Chinese government has taken steps to help and protect the (supposedly) wild population. To facilitate the CGS’s movement upriver, stairs and ramps have been installed in dams that had previously prevented its movement. Multiple reserves have also been created to keep the CGS and its habitat clean and protected from poachers. To increase the wild population, captive breeding programs have released thousands of baby salamanders into protected rivers. These salamanders are healthy and genetically diverse, thanks to modern technology in gene manipulation. To stop the spread of farm pathogens into the wild, the Zoological Society of London has partnered with universities in China to establish new biological protocols.
These efforts are not perfect—poachers often find their way onto preserves, and the released salamanders likely have a low survival rate--but they are steps in the right direction. In order to protect the CGS, we must crack down on poachers and pollution of waterways. In doing so, we will also be conserving the river habitats of countless other unique species.
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