In 2012, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) initiated a three-year Darwin-funded project to conserve the Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus, CGS). Our overall goal is to build long-term research and conservation capacity within China and to stop this species from going extinct in the wild. Given that there is currently insufficient effective conservation management of the CGS either in situ or ex situ, and that there is little existing knowledge of this species, this project will considerably improve scientific understanding and networks to strengthen the conservation framework for the CGS. Conservation of the CGS and its habitat can also benefit the regional biodiversity and the effective water resources management of local people. Through collaborations with key institutions in China, we aim to strengthen and disseminate the evidence-base on CGS distribution, population status, ecology and disease, in order to take dynamic conservation action to ensure the continued survival of this species’ in the wild.
In situ conservation and monitoring
Current monitoring protocols for wild CGS populations are inadequate, hindering effective conservation management. Within the Darwin project, we will develop standardised protocols and build the research capacity in China to conduct CGS surveys and to monitor the wild populations while, at the same time, identifying the current distribution and relative abundances of this species. This information will enable the important parts of this species’ range to be mapped, which is critical to the development of future in situ conservation strategies and the design of Protected Areas.
Ranavirus outbreaks among CGS farms have caused mass mortalities of captive CGS (infected individuals can die from this disease in just 6-8 days). This heightens the demand for harvesting wild individuals to replace depleted farm stock. In addition, pathogens are also likely to spread to any surviving wild populations in the proximity of infected farms through untreated waste water (most farms are constructed within the remnant and former range of the CGS, utilising natural waterways potentially inhabited by wild individuals). Therefore, understanding how to mitigate disease in the farming industry and the threats this poses to wild CGS will improve the health and productivity of farms, as well as reducing disease threats to wild salamanders.
Within this project, we are forming close ties with the farming industry, aiming to mitigate the impact of disease within farms and prevent its spread to wild populations. Farms are screened for the presence of diseases, and the disease status of wild CGS is determined through the analysis of clinical samples and from post-mortem tissue samples.
Understanding the range-wide population genetics and phylogeography of the CGS is crucial to safeguard maximum genetic diversity of this species, particularly when the remaining wild populations are small and isolated. Unfortunately, CGS reintroduction programmes currently taking place are neither genetically managed nor monitored, and could be damaging the genetic population structure of the wild salamanders. To enable the success of future conservation breeding and re-introduction programmes, genetic studies are required.
We are using mitochondrial DNA sequences and nuclear markers (microsatellites) to investigate the population genetics of CGS. The results of this work and the protocols developed will enable the future genetic screening and more-integrated and effective management of both wild and captive CGS in China and, importantly, will improve the design and impact of future conservation programmes.
Ex Situ conservation breeding
The ex situ breeding of CGS has become big business in China, and farms are required to release a proportion of their breeding stock to the wild as a conservation measure. However, a lack of genetic or disease screening of released farmed salamanders, in addition to no monitoring of released individuals, could present serious threats to remaining wild populations.
Within this project, we are developing a conservation breeding and reintroduction facility to foster the development of provincially range-appropriate conservation breeding populations that will both protect CGS population genetics and provide carefully managed stock for future reintroduction into the wild. In addition, the field survey and habitat modelling aspects of this project are helping to identify potential release sites for captive-bred animals. Post-release monitoring and protection strategies will be developed at these sites, including the education and involvement of local communities to minimise harvesting of wild individuals. Meanwhile, we are working with farms to keep farmed stock genetically healthy and improve current breeding methods. If a stable, self-sustaining captive population is available, then wild animals will be protected as farms will no longer need to capture CGS from the wild.
Conservation —Education and awareness-raising
We are conducting two CEPA (Communication, Education and Public Awareness-raising) campaigns, one each in Guizhou and Shaanxi provinces, to build strong networks for the in situ conservation of the CGS and freshwater ecosystems. Training is being conducted towards 1) local people who are at the heart of this project to promote the sustainable and appropriate CGS management strategies, 2) governmental departments to develop conservation capacity and policy, 3) the public to raise the conservation profile of the CGS and 4) researchers and conservationists who will be able to offer cascade training and to build research capacity in China.