Chinese Giant Salamander: Threats and Conservation Efforts

March 25, 2021Zihao Yu

Introduction

Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus) is the world’s largest amphibian which lives in inland freshwater forest/wetlands environments in China and is listed as the Critically Endangered species according to IUCN Red List. This species is threatened by wood and pulp plantations, hunting and trapping terrestrial animals, logging and wood harvesting, industrial and military effluents, and mining and quarrying. “This species was once reasonably common but has declined catastrophically over the last 30 years, principally due to over-exploitation, and it is now very rare, with few surviving populations known.”


Facts

The Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus) is the world’s largest amphibian. On an average level, the animal can be 60-70 cm and 5-6 kg, but they also can reach 1.8 meters and 30 kg at largest. The sound made by the Chinese Giant Salamander is considered to be similar to a baby’s cry and it has the name “Baby-Fish” in Chinese (娃娃鱼) although it belongs to the category of amphibian instead of fish. There are 8 subspecies of the Chinese Giant Salamander, but according to one research in 2019, there are 3 subspecies.

The Chinese Giant Salamander has to live in a specific environment. Commercial over-exploitation for human consumption is the main threat to this species. This species has also suffered from habitat destruction and habitat degradation. Although there is commercial farming of this species, the vast majority of Chinese Giant Salamanders being traded are believed to originate from the wild.


  • They have very poor eyesight, to detect their prey they sense the vibrations in the water.

  • They spend their entire lives under the water but don’t have gills. They absorb oxygen through their skin.

  • At breeding time, the females lay between 400-500 eggs which the males look after until they hatch.

  • They used to be common, but are now critically endangered due to habitat loss and excessive hunting.

  • In 1726, a Swiss physician described a fossil of a Chinese giant salamander and assumed that it was the fossil of a human being that survived the Great Flood, naming it Homo diluvii testis (“witness of the Great Flood”).

Like other salamanders in the family Cryptobranchidae, Chinese giant salamanders are ambush predators. They are carnivorous generalists and eat crabs, frogs, water shrews, fish, other invertebrates, and other giant salamanders.

Learn more about the Chinese Giant Salamander here.

"File:2009 Andrias davidianus.JPG" by J. Patrick Fischer is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Commercial over-exploitation

Due to the age of the baby fish, their meat is considered to have magical effects in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), so it is expensive and often caught by humans for eating or ornamental purposes. With the threats of commercial over-exploitation and destruction of the living environment, the Chinese Giant Salamander is on the verge of extinction.

At the end of the 20th century, the Chinese Giant Salamander was also popular for eating purposes in Taiwan (ROC), and a large amount of it was smuggled from mainland China (PRC).

Artificial breeding

In 1978, the artificial reproduction of the Chinese Giant Salamander was successfully made and the species has been used for artificial breeding since then. Today, the number of artificially bred Chinese Giant Salamander in China has reached about 100 000. According to the report in 2008, the species was planned to be used as a common food source in 2 years.

The wild Chinese Giant Salamander includes at least 5 to 8 different species, and the relevant farm operators do not know the obvious differences in the giant salamander species in various regions, and inadvertently created hybrid varieties. The hybrids have adapted to the natural environment and then cause the risk of species extinction for the wild species. According to the research by Current Biology, some Chinese giant salamanders found in the wild had the gene from the artificial breeding farms, which means the gene has been polluted by the Chinese giant salamanders escaping or released from the artificial facilities.

"File:Andrias davidianus Hongqiaozhen.jpg" by Micromesistius is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Regulations and conservation

In China, this species is listed as a Class II state major protected wildlife species. It occurs, or at least used to occur, in many nature reserves within its range, and some nature reserves even use the species as their main conservation target, such as Zhangjiajie Giant Salamander Nature Reserve. Captive rearing of animals has achieved some success, but these projects are mainly to meet the market demand. It is not clear whether or not animals are actually being bred in captivity. This species is also listed in CITES Appendix I.

The artificial bred Chinese Giant Salamanders can be sold in the market with the licenses of "Aquatic Wildlife Domestication Certificate," "Operation and Utilization Permit," "Transport Permit" issued by the fishery department. The Chinese Giant Salamanders that can be sold must be second-generation Chinese Giant Salamanders raised in captivity, incapable of reproduction, or disabled. However, the regulation lacks enforcement in some local areas.

In 2012, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) initiated a three-year Darwin-funded project - Chinese Giant Salamander International to conserve the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander.

With the impact of COVID-19, in February 2020, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress released the "Decision to Comprehensively Prohibit the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Break the Bad Habit of Excessive Consumption of Wild Animals, and Effectively Secure the Life and Health of the People." The Decision bans the activities of hunting, trade, transportation, and eating wild animals. (Article 1) Completely prohibit the consumption of “terrestrial wild animals with important ecological, the scientific and social value” and other terrestrial wild animals protected by the state, and terrestrial wildlife includes animals from artificial breeding and artificial raising. It is forbidden to hunt, trade, and transport terrestrial wild animals that naturally grow and reproduce in the wild for the purpose of food. (Article 2)


However, this Decision does not apply to aquatic animals, and in September 2020, the Ministry of Rural and Agriculture made an announcement that all Chinese Giant Salamanders and products with the license legally obtained for the operation and utilization of aquatic wild animals, or with the artificial bred Chinese Giant Salamander identity can still be legally sold in the market. This shows that Chinese Giant Salamanders can be still legally bred and raised in farms and operations artificially in the future. Luckily, as the habit of eating wildlife has been changed in China, the price of the Chinese Giant Salamanders and products has been decreasing dramatically and the farmers are seeking new ways to live instead of this industry.

Read more on Artificial breeding of Wildlife in China and Animal Law Updates in China.

Institute of Animal Law of Asia (IALA) organizes the webinar on April 2-3 as a celebration of World Aquatic Animal Day.

Please go to this page to learn more about World Aquatic Animal Day IALA Webinar.

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