I was walking through the park with Charlotte, when she told me about her latest university assignment.
‘We’ve got to make an animation of a news story from the last 5 years, Dad.’
My mind immediately went to the possibilities of a grotesque cartoon version of the grotesque Trump, or maybe a millennial’s take on Brexit.
‘Nah, I’m going to base mine on Professor Lew’, she told me.
‘Oh yes?’ I replied, wondering who she was on about and what contribution to defeating global warming, or devouring marine plastic this presumably great intellect had achieved.
‘He’s a Chinese giant salamander,’ she said.
‘I see,’ I replied, not seeing.
Charlotte went on to tell me the salamander’s story. Despite the Chinese giant salamander being depicted in Chinese culture for thousands of years, and is even believed to have inspired the iconic yin-yang motif, it is suffering far more of the dark yin than the light yang. Used in Chinese medicine and considered a Chinese culinary delicacy, (priced around £100 per lb in China) the salamander has been hunted to near extinction in the wild while its highland river habitat is also under threat to changed use and pollution.
In 2016, UK Border Force named and impounded a Chinese giant salamander having recovered it with four other critically-endangered other amphibians in a postal hub in Coventry (yes – Coventry). They had been smuggled from Hong Kong in an illegal animal-trafficking attempt, presumably destined for an illegal private collection. Unsure what to do with the 4-year old salamander with the capacity to grow up to 6-foot long, the Border Force named it Professor Lew and asked The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to act as his guardians. It’s not the first time the ZSL have come to the rescue; since 2000 they have taken on 3,370 smuggled creatures. They had some idea of what they were in for with the Professor, having taken part in a 4-year study of wildlife in 97 locations across China and seen for themselves the problems the giant salamander faces. Over the next 6-months they built a tank in London Zoo big enough to suitably house this dislocated representative of the largest species of amphibians in the world and designed to replicate the salamander’s wild environment in the mountainous regions of China.
Not that the Chinese themselves are unconcerned. Legislation prohibits the harvesting of wild populations of Chinese giant salamander with 14 nature reserves being established since the 1980’s as an effort to conserve the species. However, its penalty for being caught taking a wild salamander is only 50 yuan, or about £5 which is less than hundred times less the black-market price of a salamander. They are easily hunted with a baited bow-hook, so despite this so-called protection, around one hundred salamanders are hunted illegally every year in the Hupingshan Natural Nature Reserve alone. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture supports widespread releases of farmed salamander into the wild as a conservation measure. Paradoxically, this approach may be harmful to indigenous populations as it risks mixing genetic lineages and spreading wildlife disease. The ZSL instead have called for the establishment of captive populations of genetically distinct lineages for the specific purpose of conservation breeding.
But this, of course, only the tip of an iceberg. Wildlife poaching is one of the biggest causes of species extinction, driven by well-armed and resourced criminal gangs operating on what can only be described as an industrial scale. 100 million sharks are killed every year, mostly for their fins. 20,000 African elephants are slaughtered annually for their ivory. More than 1,000 rhinos are poached every year from South Africa alone.
This illegal pet trade is one facet of this global problem, spanning continents, involving vast networks of people, and threatening species large and small – from Chinese giant salamanders to rhinos, elephants, tigers and pangolins.
What does not help the Chinese giant salamander is it’s looks. They may not be everyone’s idea of beautiful, indeed it is sometimes described as a ‘giant brown blob’. They don’t have the popular furry cutesy appeal of, say the panda. It has a large head with small lidless eyes and a wide slimy smile. Its wrinkled skin is typically dark brown with a mottled or speckled pattern, but it can also be other brownish tones, dark reddish, or black. The skin secretes a sticky white secretion that repels natural predators.
Having been introduced to the Professor, I agreed he made for a very newsworthy story.
A few weeks later, Charlotte had finished her animation and shown it to me. You might say I could be biased, but I thought it brilliant. See what you think. It certainly has her style and sense of humour.
Fortunately, Charlotte’s assessors felt similar to me and gave good feedback. That was all a few months ago now but come Christmas, the plight of Professor Lew had never been far from our conversations, so we decided pay him a visit.
Even before the arrival of a smuggled Chinese giant salamander, London Zoo has always been a great place to visit, never more so than the day after Boxing Day when the trains are less crowded and the cold keeps all but the most robust tourists away. Sadly, the Zoo has got very shabby in the years since I last went. Don’t get me wrong, the enclosures that still house animals are reasonably sized and to me seem well-designed and in the interests of their residents, but much of the Zoo is in decay. The elephant house and aquarium buildings I remember from my youth are still there but are closed, empty and look tumbledown. The artificial mountain peak has relieved of its mountain goats and the bear sanctuary is sadly bear free. I also remember it seeming much, much bigger than it appears now; I reckon you could walk its entire perimeter in 10-15 minutes, though I appreciate my legs are probably much longer than they were on my last visit.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a fab place to go, tickets are competitively priced and we loved our time there. We marvelled at the giraffes extracting leaves with their long tongues through holes drilled in to suspended plastic globes. We loved the sloth hanging above our heads and waved at the fruit bats in the Rainforest Life Centre and were captivated by the steady acrobatics of the slow loris manoeuvring through branches in the darkened ‘Night Life’ Zone.
But we couldn’t put it off any longer, and sped our way to the Reptile House. We ran past the vivariums of sleeping pythons, cricket-crunching geckos and partially-submerged crocs to get to Amphibians alcove. We peeked briefly at the small tanks of bright blue frogs but we knew what we wanted. And there it was, a 10 foot+ tank, going back nearly as far, with the name plate for Chinese Giant Salamander, (Andrias davidianus). It was Professor Lew’s house and we couldn’t have been more excited.
As we crouched down and peered in, I could almost sense Charlotte squeal, though it was probably my shoes on the stone floor.
The Professor’s vivarium is stocked with a large number of rocks making up craggy walls and outcrops within a bubbling stream of water over a sandy base. It had us in the mind of the Chinese upland river. The carefully placed rocks vary in natural colours and allow for a number of Lew-sized hiding places.
We scanned the tank, but there was no obvious salamander to be seen. Our eyes flitted from stone to stone looking for our hero between the gaps. There are a lot of gaps, each conceivably holding a camouflaged small giant salamander, but none obviously so. We started to look at each individual stone, not quite sure what was rock and what was Lew. We stared at each one, wondering if it was actually a salamander, willing it to move. But nothing moved. We were there some time. Other visitors, inspired by our staring, gawked into the tank themselves from time to time, but didn’t have our patience or determination. After about a quarter of an hours scrutiny and speculation, we had reduced the banks of stones to two that could possibly actually be a salamander. Or a rock. We took lunch to regroup, hoping that the Professor would make himself known by our return.
And bless him, he had. Having studied those stones for so long we knew every one, so when we returned post-sandwich we both immediately noticed one had moved. Just a bit. And here he is…see him?
Look again… Isn’t he charismatic?
This was a wonderful highlight to our day. We loved seeing the lions, penguins butterflies and the gorillas, but it was the Professor who stole our show. I’ve got a feeling we will be back regularly to see his tight purple grin The ZSL’s plan is apparently to find him with a mate so one day he might not be the UK’s only Chinese giant salamander. In a world that is ever harder for so many of the world’s species at the hands of our own, Lew is maybe one of the few lucky ones.
Ten Facts You Didn’t Know About the Chinese Giant Salamander
1 – Though farmed in Central China, habitat loss, pollution and over-collection have caused the wild population to decline by more than an estimated 80% since the 1950s.
2 – The average adult salamander weighs 55–66 lb and is 3.77 ft in length. It can reach up to 110 lb in weight and 5.9 ft in length, making it the largest amphibian species.
3 – The giant salamander is known to vocalize, making barking, whining, hissing, or crying sounds. Some of these vocalizations are said to bear a striking resemblance to the crying of a young human child, and as such, it is known in the Chinese language as the “infant fish” (娃娃鱼 / 鲵).
4 – The Chinese giant salamander is carnivorous. Cannibalism between them is frequent, and a study found 28% of their total diet is made up of their counterparts.
5 – It has very poor eyesight, so depends on special sensory nodes that run in a line on the body from head to tail which allow it to sense the slightest vibrations in the water.
6 – Both sexes maintain a territory, averaging 430 sq ft for males and 320 sq ft for females.
7 – The female lays 400–500 eggs, each 7-8mm in diameter, in an underwater breeding cavity, which is guarded by the male until the eggs hatch after 50–60 days.8 – Maturity is reached at an age of 5 to 6 years and a length of 16–20 in. The maximum age reached by Chinese giant salamanders is unknown, but it is at least 60 years based on captive individuals. Undocumented claims have been made of 200-year-old Chinese giant salamanders, but these are considered unreliable.
8 – The Chinese giant salamander is entirely aquatic and lives in rocky hill streams and lakes with clear water. It is very sensitive to water temperature and quality. It typically lives in dark muddy or rocky crevices along the banks.
9 – Registrations showed that 2.6 million Chinese giant salamanders were kept in farms in 2011 in Shaanxi alone, far surpassing the entire countrywide wild population estimated at less than 50,000 individuals.
10 – Since May 2014, 33 Chinese giant salamanders, including three adults, have been held in a dedicated pavilion in Prague Zoo. The main attraction is the largest individual in Europe, which is 5 ft 1 in long.