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Chinese Giant Salamanders (Andrias spp.) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Population Status

Population estimates

  • Almost total loss of wild populations since the 1980s (Wang et al. 2004)
    • Range-wide decline since the 1950s (Zhang et al. 2002; Wang et al. 2004; Liang et al. 2004)
      • Once fairly common
      • Today, few surviving populations
  • Rarely observed in the wild (Pierson et al. 2014; Pan et al. 2016; Turvey et al. 2018)
    • Large-scale sampling (97 locations) by Turvey et al. (2018) failed to find definitive evidence of wild Chinese giant salamanders
      • Scientific study complicated by release of farmed individuals into the wild
  • Larvae production has decreased sharply since the late 2000s (e.g., Su et al. 2009; Dai et al. 2010)
  • Also see Distribution & Habitat

Population structure

  • Many wild populations very small, especially those in caves (Wang et al. 2017, except as noted)
  • Genetic diversity varies among populations (e.g., Murphy et al. 2000; Liang et al. 2019)
    • High in some populations, very low in others (e.g., Tao et al. 2005; Liang et al. 2019)
    • Declining in many populations (Liang et al. 2019)
  • Genetic diversity lower in farm populations than wild populations (Meng et al. 2012)
    • May result from inbreeding (Dai et al. 2010; Meng et al. 2018)

Conservation Status

IUCN

  • Critically Endangered; listed as a single species, Andrias davidanus (2004 assessment) (Liang et al. 2004)
    • Previous assessments
      • 1996: Data Deficient

CITES

Government laws and regulations

  • China’s Wild Animal Protection Act (1988)
    • Grade II protected species since 1988 (Liu and Liu 1998; Wang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010; Cunningham et al. 2016)
      • Collection of wild individuals from protected areas is illegal but not well enforced
        • Wild-caught generation protected but subsequent generations bred on farms can be sold (e.g., for food)
      • Farms must be licensed to stock and sell Chinese giant salamander
        • Many unlicensed farms
      • Restaurants must be licensed to sell Chinese giant salamander
      • City/county governments and farming companies lobbying to remove protected status
  • U.S. Endangered Species Act
    • Listed as Endangered (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2019)

Threats to Survival

Over-exploitation

  • Uses
    • Food
      • Expensive delicacy (luxury food market) in China (Song 1989; Wang et al. 2004; Cunningham et al. 2016; Meng et al. 2018)
      • “Considered the most delicious wildlife by Chinese people” (Liu and Liu 1998)
    • Traditional Chinese Medicine
      • Purported benefits for human health (Dai et al. 2010; Crump 2015; He et al. 2018)
        • Strengthened immune system
        • Slowed aging and memory loss
        • Reduced fatigue
        • Prevention of tumors/cancer
      • Salamander body parts and skin secretions used to treat coughs, asthma, indigestion, infection leprosy, or burns (Pan et al. 2016; He et al. 2018)
      • Used to treat malaria and anemia for at least the past 2,300 years (Crump 2015; He et al. 2018)
    • Cosmetics (Crump 2015; Pan et al. 2016)
    • Pets (Song 1989; Pan et al. 2016)
      • Uncommon
  • Commercially farmed in China for human consumption (Liu and Liu 1998; Liang et al. 2004; Cunningham et al. 2016; Turvey et al. 2019, and as noted)
    • Efforts to breed in aquaculture since the 1970s
    • Rapid industry expansion since 2004
      • Subsidized by some local governments in China
      • Size and extent of industry unknown
        • Particularly extensive in southern Shaanxi Province
          • 2011 census: 2.6 million salamanders held in licensed farms in Shaanxi Province (Cunningham et al. 2016)
    • Reduced reproduction: few farms able to breed stock beyond 1 to 2 generations—see next section (Dai et al. 2010; Cunningham et al. 2016)
      • Similar trend observed in farmed turtles in China (e.g., Haitao et al. 2007)
    • Production further reduced by prevalence of diseases on farms (e.g., Geng et al. 2011; Geng et al. 2016)
      • Ranaviruses cause high mortality
      • See “Diseases” in Mortality and Health
    • Market prices for individuals of all life stages fluctuate rapidly (Dai et al. 2010; Zhang et al. 2016)
      • See Dai et al. (2010) for discussion
  • Removal of Chinese giant salamanders from the wild
    • Many farms unable to breed beyond first generation, possibly due to inappropriate husbandry practices (Cunningham et al. 2016)
      • Natural breeding becoming more common (Benjamin Tapley, personal communication, 2019)
    • Individuals from the wild still needed as breeding stock  (Liang et al. 2004; Cunningham et al. 2016; Pan et al. 2016)
      • Most individuals used on farms for breeding are taken from the wild or are first generation offspring (Liang et al. 2004; Cunningham et al. 2016; Pan et al. 2016)
      • Larvae taken from wild (to supplement farm-bred breeding stock) (Dai et al. 2010)
        • Market emerged around 2000
    • Meat from wild individuals also said to be more desirable (Benjamin Tapley, personal communication, 2019)
    • Illegal poaching widespread, including in reserves (Zhang et al. 2002; Wang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010; Turvey et al. 2018)
    • Methods of hunting (Wang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010; Tapley et al. 2015; Pan et al. 2016; Turvey et al. 2018)
      • Bow-hooks (most common)
      • Traps
      • Nets
      • By hand
      • Electrofishing
      • Poison
      • Draining of water from den
    • Larvae that develop inside underground cave/river systems caught when dispersing from caves (e.g., Wang et al. 2017; Liang et al. 2019)

Habitat loss and water pollution

  • Causes
    • Land converted for agriculture and industrial development (Dai et al. 2010)
    • Construction of dams, roads, bridges, etc. (Wang et al. 2004; Liang et al. 2004; Pierson et al. 2014)
    • Farming and mining (Liang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010; Pierson et al. 2014)
    • Tourism (Luo, Song, et al. 2018)
  • Effects
    • Surface-level pollution flows into underground breeding habitat (Dai et al. 2010)
      • Chinese giant salamanders require unpolluted water
    • Fewer prey (Wang, Liang, et al. 2017)
    • Sedimentation may cause reduction in available refuge space (Benjamin Tapley, personal communication, 2019)
    • Habitat fragmentation, leading to higher rates of local extinction (Wang et al. 2004; Duan et al. 2016)

Spread of diseases

  • Quarantine and health screening practices not performed before salamanders enter farms or are released into the wild (Cunningham et al. 2016)
  • Farm water not treated before being discharged into rivers and streams (Cunningham et al. 2016)

Genetic mixing/homogenization (“genetic pollution”)

  • Human-mediated translocations of Chinese giant salamanders is widespread (Cunningham et al. 2016; Yan et al. 2018; Liang et al. 2019)
    • Individuals traded between farms within a region
    • Transported between Chinese provinces
    • Released from farms back into the wild (endorsed by Chinese authorities)
  • No genetic management of stock on farms (Cunningham et al. 2016)
  • Results in hybridization of species (Dai et al. 2010; Yan et al. 2018; Turvey et al. 2019; Ben Tapley, personal communication, 2019)
    • Complicates conservation efforts
    • Dilutes or eradicates genetic diversity/evolutionary uniqueness of native species/populations
    • Some lineages/species may already be extinct in the wild

Climate change

  • Chinese giant salamanders sensitive to warm water temperatures (Browne et al. 2014)
    • Experience heat stress above approximately 24°C (75°F)

Management Actions

Protection from hunting and trade

  • Class II protected species in China (Wang et al. 2004; Liang et al. 2004)
  • Fishing prohibited within Chinese giant salamander reserves (Zhang et al. 2002; Wang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010)
    • Effectiveness is limited
    • Chinese giant salamanders may not be present within reserve areas
  • In Shaanxi Province (largest region of salamander aquaculture industry), Fisheries Office known to seize illegally caught Chinese giant salamanders
    • Seized individuals then sent to licensed farms, not released back to wild
    • Poachers not punished; some receive compensation

Breeding and reintroduction

  • Stock supplementation initiatives administered by Chinese government (Ministry of Agriculture) (Cunningham et al. 2016; Wang et al. 2017)
    • “Little evidence that government-supported releases establish viable populations” (Turvey et al. 2018)
      • Some evidence of short-term survival after release (e.g., Zhang et al. 2016)
    • After release, salamanders at risk of poaching/death (Dai et al. 2010; Turvey et al. 2018)
  • Genetic testing needed prior to release (Liang et al. 2019)
  • No breeding facilities managed by conservation organizations, zoos, or government of China (Zhang et al. 2014)

Additional management actions

  • Development of sustainable forestry (Wang et al. 2017)
  • Prevention of groundwater pollution (Wang et al. 2017)
  • Community engagement
    • Community leaders monitor populations and reintroduction efforts (Zhang et al. 2016)

Conservation Groups

Abundant in Aquaculture, Nearly Extinct in the Wild

Chinese giant salamander farm, China

Aquaculture farm holding Chinese giant salamanders, China.

Giant salamanders are raised and bred in China for the luxury food market and use in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Image credit: © Benjamin Tapley/Zoological Society of London. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the artist.

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