Demand for exotic food has pushed the world’s largest amphibian, the Chinese giant salamander, to the brink of extinction in the wild, a study has shown.
The ancient creatures, which date back 170 million years, have all but disappeared from their traditional freshwater habitats, researchers say.
Giant salamanders have been depicted in Chinese culture for thousands of years, but in recent times have become a highly coveted delicacy.
To satisfy growing demand, the amphibians — which can grow to a length of 6ft (1.8m) — are routinely harvested from the wild to stock commercial breeding farms.
Evidence of the creatures’ plight has come from field surveys at 97 sites in 23 Chinese provinces over a period of four years.
Dr Samuel Turvey, a member of the research team from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said: "The over-exploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time-span.
“Unless co-ordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world’s largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy.”
The Chinese giant salamander is already categorised as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species.
China officially prohibits the harvesting of wild giant salamanders, but supports widespread releases of farmed animals as a conservation measure.
Paradoxically, this may be harming wild populations by mixing genetic lineages and spreading disease, said the scientists writing in the journal Current Biology.
Co-author Dr Fang Yan, from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, said: “It’s essential that suitable safeguards are put in place to protect the unique genetic lineage of these amazing animals, which dates back to the time of the dinosaurs.”
A related study, also published in Current Biology, shows that the Chinese giant salamander consists of not one but at least five different species, all heading for extinction. - PA