Looking at the giant salamander with its flat, wide head and long muscular tail it is hard to imagine how anyone could have mistaken its skeleton for that of a human. But in 1726 that’s exactly what Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer did, and for almost a century the fossil he found was believed to be that of a man who lived at the time of the great biblical flood.
The Chinese too ascribe human qualities to this ancient amphibian, calling it the ‘baby fish” because its cry sounds like that of a child.
But none of this anthropomorphism has stopped people in China wanting to eat the lizard-like creature. Today the giant salamander is on the verge of extinction as a result of loss of habitat and over-consumption by humans.
One solution, according to the authorities in Hunan, is to give into this gastronomic demand and then channel the proceeds back into conservation.
Last week as part of a new ‘protection’ plan, the city of Zhangjiajie hosted a three-day festival celebrating consumption of the smaller, cousin species of the giant salamander. It featured cooking displays, plus tanks containing live salamanders for purchase, and medical products made from the amphibian. The fair’s slogan: “Healthy delicacies which have lived on earth for 350 million years.”
The authorities said all the animals were raised in captivity and thus can be legally consumed under Chinese law. Xinhua has reported that China now has more than 2,622 salamander farming firms, which have mainly bred the smaller, cousin species of the giant salamanders. The Zhangjiajie government’s plan is to have 200,000 edible salamander in its farms by 2017.
“We want to turn Zhangjiajie’s salamanders into a global brand,” an official told the city’s newspaper.
Environmentalists are unconvinced. Part of the problem is that Zhangjiajie is home to China’s main giant salamander conservation centre – a massive national park designed to provide the amphibians with the clean, fast-running streams they need to thrive and reproduce.
The decision to use the same city to also promote farm-reared salamanders is confusing, say activists. “It’s a very real risk that promoting increased consumption will lead to increased demand that cannot be met from farmed sources,” Richard Thomas, of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic, told AFP.
Some Chinese animal lovers were also outraged. “It is like the park is just an advert for their business,” said one on weibo.
Another said it was wrong to compare the festival to the role safari parks play in conservation: “When people go to Africa to see lions they are paying to see them alive not dead on their plate.”
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