The world’s largest amphibians are facing extinction due to illegal poaching and their reputation as a luxury food.
Giant Chinese salamanders, which can grow as long as six feet and weigh up to 64kg, were once plentiful but now scientists say their future is in “serious jeopardy”.
Researchers have carried out field surveys at 97 sites where the animals were known to live, in 16 of China’s provinces, over four years.
But very few were found and, with many of them, it could not be confirmed whether they were wild or whether they had recently been released from one of the breeding programmes run by the Chinese.
The study, published in Current Biology, said: “Our field surveys and interviews indicate the species has experienced catastrophic range-wide decline apparently driven by over-exploitation.
“The status of wild populations may be even worse than our data suggest.
“Releases had occurred shortly before surveys at two sites where we detected individuals.”
When human residents were interviewed, many said they hadn’t seen the animals for decades.
Samuel Turvey, a researcher at the Zoological Society of London who co-authored the report, 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 coordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world’s largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy.”
Another study, led by China’s Kunming Institute of Zoology, found that the giant Chinese salamanders, once believed to be a single species, are actually five species.
However, scientists say that all five are either speeding towards extinction or have already reached that point.
One of the problems, according to co-author Dr Fang Yan from KIZ, is that the breeding programmes run by the Chinese may be harmful.
The programmes are intended to release the animals into the wild but there are concerns that the breeding programme does not account for the genetic differences between the species.
The reason this is a concern is that hybrids may not be strong enough to survive in the wild.
Dr Fang said: “Together with addressing wider pressures such as poaching for commercial farms and habitat loss, 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.”
It is also believed that salamanders are taken from the wild and farmed as a luxury food item.
This over-harvesting has had a catastrophic effect on the wild population, which is estimated to have declined by 80% since 1960.