Professor Lew: An Unexpected Journey?

by ZSL on

Dominic Jermey, ZSL’s Director General, explains how the arrival of a Chinese giant salamander in the UK is shining yet another spotlight on the global illegal wildlife trade. 

Professor Lew the Chinese giant salamander

This week we introduced our visitors to Professor Lew, a four-year-old Chinese giant salamander with what some might describe as an unusual origin story. 

‘The Prof’, as the Critically Endangered salamander has already been affectionately nicknamed, came to ZSL London Zoo in 2016 via the UK’s Border Force, who, having prevented an attempt to illegally import the youngster into the country, asked the Zoo to act as its guardians. 

ZSL experts then worked for the best part of a year to build the perfect new home for the salamander - which opened to the public on Wednesday - using vital information about the unique amphibian’s wild habitat, gathered by ZSL’s scientists and conservationists during the biggest wildlife survey ever seen in China

All of which makes the salamander’s arrival on British soil (presumably heading for someone’s illegal private collection), at first glance, a remarkable journey. 

But Professor’s Lew’s tale is sadly not as unusual as it sounds.

This captivating salamander, with its slimy smile and crinkly purple tail, is far from alone – being yet another victim of one of the biggest threats facing animals today: the illegal wildlife trade.

Since 2000, we’ve provided a home for 3,370 animals confiscated by the UK’s Border Force, including Egyptian tortoises, red rain frogs, green tree pythons and hundreds of corals (yes, corals are animals…!). 

ZSL has long worked with customs officers to help identify and rehome these seized animals, which are often smuggled into this country to be ‘pets’.

A Chinese giant salamander arrives at ZSL London Zoo

This illegal pet trade is one facet of the global problem that is illegal wildlife trade, an insidious criminal industry that spans continents, involves vast networks of people, and threatens species large and small – from Chinese giant salamanders to rhinos, elephants, tigers and pangolins. 

100 million sharks are killed every year, mostly for their fins. 20,000 African elephants are slaughtered annually for their ivory. More than 1,000 rhinos are poached every year from South Africa alone. 

The growth of the illegal wildlife trade has become one of the biggest causes of extinction and is driven by well-armed and resourced criminal gangs operating on what can only be described as an industrial scale. 

And it’s having a major effect on the world’s wildlife – the 2018 Living Planet Index, produced by ZSL for WWF, showed that populations of monitored mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and fish have, on average, dropped by more than half in little more than 40 years.

It’s vital that ZSL and other like-minded NGOs work with governments and law enforcement authorities to tackle this issue. That’s why we are raising the profile of threatened species like the Chinese giant salamander, ensuring that existing laws to halt the trade are actioned, working on the ground to protect vulnerable animals and addressing why the demand exists in the first place.

We’re proud to be the only zoo in the UK to have a Chinese giant salamander in residence, even though the back story of how this creature came here in the first place is such a sad one. 

We look forward to sharing his story with our visitors so they can find out more about these incredible amphibians – the world’s largest, in fact.

But it’s important to remember that Professor Lew’s tale is not unique - we hope that by working to confront the issue of illegal wildlife trade now, we won’t have to continue telling stories like these in years to come.

Learn more about Chinese giant salamanders 

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