China’s Giant Salamanders Pose a Conservation Conundrum

A Chinese giant salamander, in a glass enclosure in Zhangjiajie, China. There are as many as eight distinct species, but farming is muddling them into a single hybridized population.
Credit...Goh Chai Hin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Chinese giant salamander, the world’s largest amphibian and a critically endangered species, has quietly slipped toward extinction in nature. Following an exhaustive, yearslong search, researchers recently reported that they were unable to find any wild-born individuals.

“When we started the survey, we were sure we’d at least find several salamanders,” said Samuel Turvey, the lead author and a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London.

“It’s only now that we’ve finished that we realize the actual severity of the situation.”

Millions of giant salamanders live on farms scattered throughout China, where the animals are bred for their meat. But another study by Dr. Turvey and his colleagues shows that reintroducing farmed animals is not a simple solution for saving the species in the wild.

In the wild, Chinese giant salamanders were not just one species but at least five, and perhaps as many as eight. On farms, they are being muddled into a single hybridized population adapted to no particular environment.

“The farms are driving the extinction of most of the species by homogenizing them,” said Robert Murphy, a co-author and senior curator of herpetology at the Royal Ontario Museum. “We’re losing genetic diversity and adaptations that have been evolving for millions of years.”

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As with so many other protected species in China, poaching is the main threat to giant salamanders, which can weigh up to 140 pounds. Unlike pangolins, tigers and rhinos, however, salamanders were never historically valued as meat, trophies or medicine.

“Traditional knowledge associated them with bad luck and dead babies,” Dr. Turvey said. “They were animals you didn’t want to go near.”

That changed in the mid-20th century when famine forced people to turn to alternative food sources. By the 1990s, giant salamander meat had been rebranded as a luxury food item in China, and government-subsidized salamander farms began popping up around the country.

As prices for live animals skyrocketed, captive populations grew and wild ones plummeted. “The development of this industry led to huge amounts of increased pressure on salamanders, which were poached from the wild to stock these farms,” Dr. Turvey said.

Realizing the amphibians were disappearing in nature, officials decided to restock wild populations by releasing captive-born salamanders.

But what seemed like a good conservation strategy led to a number of new problems, Dr. Turvey said.

Not recognizing that salamanders from different parts of the country were distinct species, farmers had inadvertently created hybrids — a fact that the researchers confirmed through genetic analysis of over 1,000 captive amphibians.

“When we looked at farmed animals, we found a large mixture of different genetic components, like a witch’s caldron,” said Jing Che, a herpetologist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology and co-author of both recent studies.

No system was ever put in place to prevent hybrids from release into the wild, nor to ensure that reintroduced animals were matched with their geographic origins.

“These hybrids may create a big mess by changing the genetic makeup of locally adapted wild animals,” Dr. Che said.

In 2009, Dr. Murphy and his colleagues raised these concerns at a government meeting but were dismissed. “They just said it wasn’t an issue,” he said.

At least 72,000 captive-bred salamanders have been released since then. Until now, the cumulative effect of poaching, farming and release on wild populations was unknown.

So in 2013, Dr. Turvey and his colleagues organized a nationwide giant salamander search — apparently the largest wildlife survey ever conducted in China.

They spent three years scanning riverbeds and turning over rocks at 97 sites in 16 provinces. They found giant salamanders at just four sites.

All of the animals had genetic profiles that did not match the places in which they were living, indicating they likely originated on farms.

The researchers also interviewed nearly 3,000 local people, about half of whom said they had seen giant salamanders in the wild. But the most recent sightings they could recall took place, on average, 18 years ago.

“There could be remnant populations of genuine salamanders scattered here and there, but they are effectively impossible for any researchers to find now,” Dr. Turvey said.

Given that, the best strategy for preventing extinction in the wild, he added, is to rescue genetically pure animals from farms, and then undertake carefully controlled conservation breeding to rebuild each species’ numbers.

“If we wait too long, all those wild-caught individuals will be gone,” he said.

Releases of giant salamanders without knowing their genetic makeup should stop immediately, Dr. Che added. But that can’t happen without buy-in from Chinese authorities.

“We hope to work with the government to improve the existing conservation plan,” Dr. Che said. “We have a responsibility to do conservation based on scientific knowledge.”

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