The ‘freshwater panda’ of China

The giant panda is loved by people globally. Its characteristic black and white coat and playful nature has made it a firm favourite with the general public whilst is has become a symbol of peace as the national present gifted by China to its friend countries.

But do you know we also have a panda living in the water?

Like the giant panda, the ‘freshwater panda’ is a national treasure and only found in China. The ‘freshwater panda’ is also classified as Critically Endangered, signifying that it is on the brink of extinction, and its ancestors trace back to the age of the dinosaurs, about 170 million years ago! This incredible creature is the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus).

China’s amphibian diversity is one of the highest in the world, but worryingly the country is experiencing escalating levels of biodiversity loss concurrent with its huge-scale economic boom. Currently, 27.3% of China’s total 365 extant amphibian species are extinct or threatened with extinction (Xie et al. 2007). Among those amphibian species, the Chinese giant salamander is a very high conservation priority, and there has never been a greater need to engage in actions that will ensure its continued survival in the wild.

Habitat destruction, over-exploitation and unregulated captive farming have driven the Chinese giant salamander to large population declines in the wild. A lack of information on its current distribution and abundance further hampers effective conservation management.

To facilitate the development of a long-term, holistic and inclusive conservation strategy for the Chinese giant salamander, in May 2010 ZSL co-led an International Conservation Workshop for the Chinese Giant Salamander with Shaanxi Normal University. Multiple stakeholders attended this workshop and set future directions for the conservation of this species. In August, 2012, ZSL initiated a three-year collaborative, Darwin Initiative funded, conservation project called “A sustainable future for Chinese giant salamanders”. Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong and US Fish and Wildlife Service Amphibians in Decline are providing matched funding. The goal of this project is to build the evidence-base and capacity to underpin, promote and conduct a strategic conservation plan for the Chinese giant salamander within its native range in China. The strong partnership between ZSL and project partners in China will generate a better understanding of the ecology, biology, phylogenetics and disease management of the Chinese giant salamander.

Recently, the first annual project workshop was held at Kunming Institute of Zoology. Sarah Thomas, from ZSL’s Discovery and Learning Department, trained project participants in CEPA (Communication, Education and Public Awareness) to enable them to maximize the conservation impacts of this project in China. In May a second workshop will be held in Guizhou Province (an important range area for the Chinese giant salamander). In preparation for this workshop, Dr Samuel Turvey and Ben Tapley, both from ZSL, will be working with professionals from other international organizations to develop standardised surveying protocols. During the workshop in-country project participants will be trained in these methods to enable in situ population monitoring.

Through this project, ZSL is dedicated to the conservation of the Chinese giant salamander and its habitat. It is hoped that by motivating cooperation between multiple stakeholders and by building in-country research and conservation capacity, a sustainable future can be secured for China’s precious ‘freshwater panda’.

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