Meet one of the planet’s rarest creatures - discovered in a CEREAL BOX in Coventry

This Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander was among a consignment of five of the world’s largest amphibians found crammed into a cereal box at a postal hub in the midlands after arriving from Hong Kong. It is suspected the bizarre, newt-like creatures had been smuggled into Britain for the illegal pet trade. Acclaimed as an Oriental delicacy, these “living fossils” – which can grow to six-foot long and weigh 120lb – have been almost eaten to extinction, with only a few surviving in the wild.

With the global illegal wildlife trade worth more than £17billion a year to crime racketeers, confiscating animals and plants protected under international laws is becoming an increasingly vital role for Border Force officers.

Sadly, the salamanders were so badly packaged that one had already died when the consignment was seized in Coventry.

The surviving four aquatic giants were subsequently passed on to experts at the Zoological Society of London and one of them – nicknamed Professor Lew, meaning “dragon keeper” – is going on show from today in a specially designed tank at London Zoo's Reptile House.

Professor Lew’s sex has yet to be determined but there are hopes that one of the three other salamanders will be introduced for mating while the remaining two may be moved to other British zoos because the creatures are highly territorial and need separate housing.

Border Force asked for the zoo’s assistance as it has experience looking after the creatures, which have the scientific name of Andrias davidianus.

ZSL has been heavily engaged in surveying for salamanders in their native China where they are on the cusp of extinction, despite being enshrined in ancient culture. More recently, the salamanders have won fame as a culinary delicacy, with numbers harvested from the wild and bred on commercial farms to satisfy demand. Today, the salamander is ranked No 2 on the ZSL’s EDGE of Existence list for amphibians.

Despite Chinese agriculture officials supporting the release of farmed animals back into the wild, there are fears this could put surviving numbers at risk of disease and genetic mixing.

The parlous state of the salamanders was borne out by a four-year survey, spanning 97 sites across 16 provinces, with thousands of local people revealing they had not seen the creatures for decades. On average, the last sighting was 19 years ago.

ZSL’s Curator of Amphibians Ben Tapley explained: “Working in collaboration with Japanese experts, ZSL trained more than 80 biologists across China so survey methods could be standardised for the first time, allowing the team to understand where this species still occurs and whether populations from different parts of China differ in terms of their genetic makeup.

“Sadly, the results confirmed the desperate plight of these unique aquatic giants, as the four-year project only located 24 animals in the wild – and it was a further blow when genetic testing revealed they were all likely to be releases or escapes from local farms.”

With ZSL calling for an establishment of a global breeding programme for the salamanders, it is hoped that Professor Lew may play a part in the species’ survival despite having travelled half the world in a cereal box to end up in the UK.

Mr Tapley added: “We work closely with Border Force to identify unusual animals, but even I was astonished to see that they were Chinese giant salamanders – one of the world’s most Critically Endangered amphibians.

“As the only zoo in the country to have Chinese giant salamanders in residence, it’s a privilege to be able to shine a spotlight on this incredible species. 

“We also hope to find out more about the exact lineage of these four through genetic testing, so we can cross reference the results with any data we obtain in the field and support efforts to tackle the emerging illegal pet trade in the species.”

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