|Going After The Dragons Of Zhangjiajie
By Tham Choy Lin
ZHANGJIAJIE (HUNAN), April 6 (Bernama) -- People in this part of the world are especially proud of their `dragons' and believe the descendants of the celestial beast live among them.
In reality, the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias Davidianus) bears little resemblance to the imperial symbol of power of popular belief. For one, it doesn't have wings and its blotchy skin, a mottle of dark brown, dirty green and black, is scale-less.
But the flat-headed amphibian with tiny eyes and no eyelids does remind of the Jurassic age. Fossils of its ancestors have been found in Inner Mongolia dating back to 165 million years.
In a remote village sandwiched by soaring mountains in Sanzhi county, thousands of these creatures are being hatched and released into the wild by once farmer Wang Guoxin.
They are the descendants of the dragon. In the old days, they were probably at least three to four metres long, said the 55-year-old Wang as he stepped out of his self-made research station, a pitch black 600m tunnel bored deep inside a limestone hill.
FATHER OF WAWAYU
Wang is now director of the first reserve in the province to save the endangered species known to locals as wawayu, literally meaning baby, because the salamander's mating sounds are similar to a crying infant.
The state has provided financial backing for the farmer who dedicated himself to protecting the salamander since 30 years ago. Eight of them were spent inside mountain caves to research how salamanders breed.
Wang had lost more than the tip of his right forefinger which was bitten off by an angry salamander.
He said his mother lost her footing and drowned in a river during a storm in 2003 when she ventured out in search of salamanders.
LAND OF THE DRAGONS
It is not hard to see why the locals believe they are in the bowels of dragon land. The complete fossils of two dinosaurs were unearthed in Sanzhi County.
More remains are believed embedded in the ring of mountains in this rural country side brightened here and there by fields of yellow rapeseed harvested for cooking oil and bio-fuel.
Inside Wang's breeding tunnel, scores of baby salamanders paddle in cool, clear mountain water piped into parallel rows of rectangular ponds.
To get to the reserve is a bone-jarring journey over a dusty country road that climbs, dips and twists its way into a mountain range.
Few will enjoy the journey and few will get the chance. The reserve is off limits to the public and visits are by special arrangement.
In the wild, salamanders live in dark crevices of remote mountain streams. It's lazy gait on land veils a creature that moves swiftly in water to feed on fish, crabs and other small river organisms at night.
Wang has two patents to artificially breed the Chinese salamander which is the biggest in the world compared to one found in Japan and the United States.
Salamanders lay eggs in clusters of up to 800 each time but not all will hatch into the three-centimeter long babies which can grow to a 1.8m full length. Breeding conditions are ideal at temperatures of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius.
The biggest and oldest of Wang's pets weighs 65kg and measures 1.6m from head to tail.
It was caught in the wild 30 years ago.
Workers at the reserve have nicknamed it Chunchun, after the salamander mascot for the annual Zhangjiajie forest conservation festival held since 1991.
WHAT FUTURE FOR SALAMANDERS
Wang reckons he has freed 20,000 salamanders back to the wild, once depleted by natural pollution, pet lovers and an appetite for its supposedly delicious flesh.
It is believed that despite being a protected species, salamanders are still ending up in cooking pots at high prices.
There are several other protection sites in China. The salamander is found in mountainous areas from 200m to 1,000m above sea level in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl rivers.
Wang said he has not exported any salamanders.
It is very hard to create the right atmosphere for them, they have to be here because this is where they grow best away from humans, he said.