Dying for a delicacy

Landmark survey led by ZSL reveals conservation loopholes are causing catastrophic decline in wild Chinese giant salamander populations

The largest amphibians in the world are facing extinction because of an increasing taste for their meat – as results of a new landmark survey led by ZSL (Zoological Society of London) reveals that commercial salamander farmers are circumventing conservation legislation to meet demand for the Critically Endangered delicacy. 

Reaching lengths of up to 1.8 metres long, Chinese giant salamanders are sometimes referred to as ‘living fossils’, as their evolutionary lineage diverged from all other amphibians about 160 million years ago. However, wild populations of giant salamanders have crashed across China, and the future of these unique creatures is far from guaranteed unless urgent action is taken to enforce protective measures.

Wild chinese giant salamander

Published today in People and Nature, ‘From dirty to delicacy?’ reveals the results of a series of large-scale interview surveys conducted by researchers from ZSL and their Chinese colleagues across the range of giant salamanders in China, in order to understand the impact of past and present human activities on salamander populations. The study found that the unusual appearance of giant salamanders led people in rural communities across China to think of them as bad luck, with local people often associating them with dead babies. However, overexploitation for the nation’s luxury food market has recently caused their numbers to plummet. 

Researchers interviewed multiple consumers and stakeholders in both rural and urban environments, including 2,932 rural households, 66 salamander farms, 115 county government officials, and 835 urban consumers. The results provide new insights into the sustainability of human-salamander interactions over time, the drivers of demand, and the effectiveness of current conservation policy.

conservationists talking in a river

The team estimate that there were 42,000 adult salamanders and 164,000 subadult salamanders in farms during their survey. Most farms admitted to stocking wild-caught animals, despite this being an outlawed practice. Farmers also admitted knowing where to locate wild salamanders to stock farms and revealed a preference for wild-caught as opposed to farm-bred stock. However, of the surveyed counties where farms contained locally wild-caught salamanders, government officials in only one county had issued permits to collect the animals from the wild, highlighting significant flaws in the policies designed to protect wild populations.

Consumption of giant salamanders in Chinese cities is also now widespread, and worryingly, the most common reason given for wanting to eat them was their rarity or expensiveness. This raises serious concerns that giant salamanders are now being exploited in China simply because they are rare – adding extra pressure on their highly threatened populations.

Professor Samuel Turvey, lead author of ‘From dirty to delicacy?’, said: “Our results demonstrate wide-scale and largely unregulated illegal hunting to stock farms at a country-wide scale in order to support demand by urban consumers for high-prestige rare meat.”

The survey results suggest that salamander farming poses unsustainable pressure on giant salamander populations, and existing legislation has so far proved ineffective at preventing the stocking of farms with wild-caught animals. Solutions will require multiple coordinated approaches, including enforcement of existing legislation, increased penalties for removing giant salamanders from the wild, permanent identification of captive-bred giant salamanders, and consumer-focused interventions to reduce urban demand.

Turvey concluded: “The great majority of wild-caught salamanders in farms must have been obtained illegally, since very few government permits have been issued to collect wild salamanders. Our findings therefore highlight an important and concerning gap in the effectiveness of China's conservation protection for some of its highest priority threatened species. These findings should be used to inform national conservation planning for Chinese giant salamanders, including tackling consumer demand for rare species, and enforcement of existing legislation to prevent poaching.”


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