The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is the world’s largest amphibian and a global priority for conservation due to its evolutionary history and high extinction risk. This Critically Endangered species is endemic to China. This species is eaten and has a  high economic value, leading to the unsustainable and unregulated harvesting from the wild and the relatively recent development of an intensive salamander farming industry.

In 2010, ZSL brought stakeholders together to identify the evidence base that was needed to inform the conservation of this enigmatic species. This evidence was thengathered by ZSL and partner organisations:the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Shaanxi Normal University and Guiyang University, with support from the Darwin Initiative. The team, which included four  EDGE Fellowsconducted the most extensive wildlife survey seen in China to date. Standardised ecological field surveys and interviews were carried out at 97 sites in 16 of the country’s 23 provinces over four years. Fieldwork represented over seven person-years of effort. We detected just 24 giant salamanders at four sites. As the species is economically significant and easily identifiable, these findings were verified using local ecological knowledge. Standardised questionnaire surveys were undertaken near surveyed rivers. Of the 2,872 respondents, 85.5% recognised giant salamanders and 46.9% reported sightings, but mean last-sighting date was 18.96 years earlier. This extensive effort revealed that populations of this once-widespread species are now critically depleted or extirpated across all surveyed areas of their range, and illegal poaching is widespread.

Our work revealed that the Chinese giant salamander is a species complex composed of at least five distinct, species level, lineages. Some of these lineages are now exceedingly rare and possibly extinct in the wild. Chinese legislation prohibits the harvesting of wild populations of giant salamander, yet widespread “conservation” releases of farmed animals are endorsed by the Chinese government. This may be detrimental to wild populations as it risks mixing genetic lineages. Indeed, the salamanders we encountered during the ecological surveys in the Yangtze and Pearl watersheds  had a Yellow River matriline, indicating they were farm releases/escapes.Our low detection rate provides little evidence that government-supported releases establish viable populations. Also, we found dead salamanders following known releases and released animals might be unlikely to persist with the evident level of poaching.The establishment of captive populations of genetically distinct lineages for the specific purpose of conservation breeding is warranted.


Chen, S., Cunningham, A.A., Wei, G., Yang, J., Liang, Z., Wang, J., Wu, M., Yan, F., Xiao, H., Harrison, X.A. and Pettorelli, N. 2018. Determining threatened species distributions in the face of limited data: Spatial conservation prioritization for the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus). Ecology and evolution, 8(6): 3098-3108.

Cunningham, A.A., Turvey, S.T., Zhou, F., Meredith, H.M., Guan, W., Liu, X, Sun, C., Wang, Z. and Wu, M. 2016. Development of the Chinese giant salamander Andrias davidianus farming industry in Shaanxi Province, China: conservation threats and opportunities. Oryx, 50(2): 265-273.

Pan, Y., Wei, G., Cunningham, A.A., Li, S., Chen, S., Milner-Gulland, E.J. and Turvey, S.T. 2016. Using local ecological knowledge to assess the status of the Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander Andrias davidianusin Guizhou Province, China. Oryx, 50(2): 257-264.

Tapley, B., Chen, S., Turvey, S.T., Redbond, J., Okada, S., and Cunningham, A.A. 2017. A sustainable future for Chinese giant salamanders: Chinese giant salamander field survey manual. Technical report, Zoological Society of London. Available at:

Tapley, B., Okada, S., Redbond, J., Turvey, S.T., Chen, S., Lü, J., Wei, G., Wu, M.Y., Pan, Y., Niu, K.F. and Cunningham, A.A. 2015. Failure to detect the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve, Guizhou Province, China. Salamandra51: 206-208

Turvey, S.T., Chen, S., Tapley, B., Wei, G., Xie, F., Yan, F., Yang, J., Liang, Z., Tian, H., Wu, M.,Okada, S., Wang, J., Lü, J., Zhou, F., Papworth, S.K., Redbond, J., Brown, T., Che, J. and Cunningham, A.A.2018. Imminent extinction in the wild of the world’s largest amphibian. Current Biology, 28(10): R592-R594.

Yan, F., Lü, J., Zhang, B., Yuan, Z., Zhao, H., Huang, S., Wei, G., Mi, X., Zou, D., Xu, W. Chen, S., Wang, J., Feng, X., Wu, M., XIaou, H., Liang, Z., Jin, J., Wu, S., Xu, C., Tapley, B., Turvey, S.T., Papenfuss, T.J., Cunningham, A.A., Murphey, R.W., Zhang, Y. and Che, J.  2018. The Chinese giant salamander exemplifies the hidden extinction of cryptic species. Current Biology, 28(10): R590-R592.

Photo: Benjamin Tapley / ZSL