The Chinese giant salamander looks like a creature out of a fairy tale. It’s the world’s largest amphibian. Given the chance, it can live for a half-century and grow to be more than six feet long and 130 pounds. But it sounds like and even resembles a newborn baby. Local people call them wawa yu, or crying baby fish, and in some areas used to regard them as river spirits.
Today, the giant salamander is one of China’s national treasures, an “aquatic Panda.” But it is also a status symbol on the dinner plates of the very rich, and together with habitat destruction, that has caused a catastrophic loss of population over the past two decades.
Three genetically distinct populations used to inhabit fast-moving mountain streams in the upper reaches of the Yellow, Yangtze, and Pearl River systems. But recent expeditions in China, including one this past May, have failed to capture specimens from the salamander’s ancient habitats. An evolutionary line dating back 170 million years thus faces the likelihood of extinction in the wild within this decade.
When an American team visited in 2012 to search for specimens in the Tibetan Plateau, they found that one likely habitat had been silted over by an upstream gold mining operation. Offering a $1,000 reward also failed to turn up specimens from the wild, according to expedition leader Ted Papenfuss, a herpetologist at the University of California’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. In one village, the locals reported that a pair of giant salamanders had been breeding in a river cave behind city hall, until scuba divers arrived one night and spirited them away.
The giant salamanders remain abundant, however, on commercial farms, many of which Papenfuss visited on his return trip across China. At one, he says, the proprietor boasted that, eight years earlier, she had been earning just $100 a month, sweeping up at the local airport. Now she was doing well enough in the salamander business to have traded in her old bicycle and purchased a Mercedes instead. In a greenhouse half the size of a basketball court, she was rearing 500 salamanders, each about two-feet long. She had devised a system to get them from hatchlings to market weight of about three pounds in a year.
“Her husband bought a Toyota minivan and it’s like pizza delivery,” says Papenfuss. “People who are fabulously wealthy phone up and he delivers the salamanders,” at about $1,000 apiece. At another farm, the proprietor kept a live 33-pound giant salamander on display as advertising for his restaurant, where he serves giant salamander as a status symbol. “The death knell for the Chinese giant salamander,” says Papenfuss, was the declaration by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s that “To get rich is glorious.”
In theory, populations surviving on commercial farms could provide stock for a captive breeding program, eventually leading to return of giant salamanders to the wild. In the United States, that kind of collaboration between conservationists and commercial alligator farmers helped rescue the American alligator from its status in the 1960s as an endangered species.
But so far, says Papenfuss, the salamander farmers appear to be interested only in profit, not conservation. The success with American alligators also involved a strict crackdown on the illegal trade, and China is not yet taking any similar initiative on behalf of its “freshwater Panda.” One final complication is that salamanders from the three separate river systems may have been mixed together on commercial farms, muddying their original genetic distinctions.
For now, the best hope for the Chinese giant salamander rests with researchers there who have taken a special interest in the species. Ya-Ping Zhang has recently become deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and amphibian conservationist Jing Che is now a professor at the Academy’s Kunming Institute of Zoology. They are also working with a Chinese giant salamander recovery initiative led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.
It’s possible that a new technique, called environmental DNA (or eDNA) sampling, could help locate Chinese giant salamanders surviving in the wild, according to Todd Pierson, a University of George research technician who participated in the 2012 expedition. The technique involves taking a sample of water in a stream and then analyzing the DNA that it contains, and it has already helped locate populations of hellbenders, the American cousins of the Chinese giant salamander.
But the larger hope may be the emerging recognition in China that the glory of being rich has to do with the good you can do in the world—not the gaudy merchandise you can buy, or the exotic species you can put on your dinner plate.
The question is whether that recognition will come fast enough to keep the dinner bell from tolling for the extinction of the Chinese giant salamander.