Photo: Chinese giant salamander arrives at ZSL London Zoo. © ZSL London Zoo

A rescued Chinese giant salamander will make its debut at ZSL London Zoo today, after ZSL wildlife experts helped Border Force identify four of the Critically Endangered amphibians and offered them a new home.

Having prevented an attempt to illegally import the mysterious looking animals, Border Force asked the Zoo’s keepers to look after the Chinese giant salamanders (Andrias davidianus) – protected under CITES regulations – because of their previous experience looking after the aquatic giants.

Now, one of the surprisingly charismatic amphibians – named Professor ‘Lew’, which means ‘dragon keepers’ in Chinese – has moved into a state-of-the-art tank in the Zoo’s Reptile House, giving visitors the chance to come face to face with one of nature’s giants.

ZSL’s Curator of Amphibians, Ben Tapley, said: “We work closely with Border Force to identify unusual animals, but even I was astonished to see that they were Chinese giant salamanders – one of the world’s most Critically Endangered amphibians.”

Depicted in Chinese culture for thousands of years, the iconic species is thought to have inspired Chinese dragon legends, but more recently has become a culinary delicacy: they’re now ranked No.2 on ZSL’s EDGE of Existence amphibians list, which puts unique and threatened species at the forefront of conservation attention.

To satisfy the demand for their meat, the amphibians, which can grow up to 1.8m long and weigh up to 54kg, were once harvested from the wild to stock commercial breeding farms, decimating the wild population.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture now supports the release of some of these farmed animals back into the wild as a conservation measure, but this could harm the last remaining wild populations as it risks mixing genetic lineages and spreading wildlife disease.

Between 2014 and 2018, ZSL experts led the largest wildlife survey in China to date, spanning 97 sites across 16 provinces as part of global efforts to understand and tackle the threats facing the world’s largest amphibian.

“Working in collaboration with Japanese experts, ZSL trained more than 80 biologists across China so survey methods could be standardised for the first time, allowing the team to understand where this species still occurs and whether populations from different parts of China differ in terms of their genetic makeup.

“Sadly, the results confirmed the desperate plight of these unique aquatic giants, as the four-year project only located 24 animals in the wild – and it was a further blow when genetic testing revealed they were all likely to be releases or escapes from local farms.”

The team also interviewed thousands of local residents close to each survey site to find out when they last saw the species in the wild, but the average last sighting was an astonishing 19 years ago.

ZSL are now calling for the establishment of global breeding programmes for the species, to preserve all genetically distinct lineages of the ‘living fossils’, which have remained largely unchanged for millions of years.

“As the only zoo in the country to have Chinese giant salamanders in residence, it’s a privilege to be able to shine a spotlight on this incredible species.

“We also hope to find out more about the exact lineage of these four through genetic testing, so we can cross reference the results with any data we obtain in the field and support efforts to tackle the emerging illegal pet trade in the species.”

The three other seized salamanders are being looked after behind-the-scenes and keepers will eventually introduce one of the group to Professor Lew as a mate: the remaining two may then move to other Zoos in the UK, as the species are highly territorial and need to be housed in separate enclosures.

Find out more about ZSL’s vital work with Chinese giant salamanders and other Critically Endangered species by visiting www.zsl.org