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Born Free USA Blog
Adam M Roberts

Born Free USA Blog

by Adam M Roberts,
Chief Executive Officer

When it comes to animals, Adam Roberts not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. Since beginning his animal advocacy career in Washington, D.C. in 1991, Adam's ambition, tireless involvement, and profound knowledge of conservation and wildlife issues have cemented him as a go-to voice for protecting animals — and he has elevated Born Free USA to the respected and impactful organization that we know today. Adam's compassionate, informed, and forward-thinking blogs will surely motivate you to join us in our fight to Keep Wildlife in the Wild.

Hell-Bent To Save Hellbenders

We Can Help Preserve an All-American Species

Published 11/09/10

There is a good chance you haven’t heard of Cryptobranchids, and a pretty good chance you don’t know what a hellbender is, but you should. It’s an American specialty and it needs our help.

Cryptobranchids (it means “hidden gills”) are the world’s largest salamanders. Prehistorically there were several species, widely distributed, but now there are only three, each found only in one country.

Biggest is the Chinese giant salamander (known to reach 6 feet in length), while the nearly identical Japanese giant salamander is a little smaller (known to reach 5 feet in length), with each of those two species found only in a small part of the countries for which they are named. Both are endangered, the Chinese species critically so.

And then there is the hellbender. It is known to reach 39 inches in length, the world’s third-largest salamander. It is closely related to the other two, which it greatly resembles in appearance. It is found only in some clear streams in the United States east of the Mississippi River. It has been listed as endangered in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri and Ohio, and officially described as being rare or “of special concern” in Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee.

The problems faced by all three species include degradation of water quality (they require clear, well-oxygenated water), infection by a disease called Chytridiomycosia (a fungal illness that is driving many amphibian species to extinction) and people eat them. The hellbender also is sometimes killed by sports anglers who erroneously think the salamander competes with them for trout. All of these issues must be dealt with if the species is to survive.

But there is another difficulty. There is a demand for the animals for the pet trade, and to be used in place of their even rarer Asian relatives as gourmet food or traditional medicine in Asia.

And that’s where we come in. The U.S. government is asking for your input and ours on whether or not the species should be listed on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Let me explain. There are two main Appendices of CITES. Appendix I is for species who the CITES signatories believe are too endangered to allow for international trade. An Appendix II listing only requires that if a species, its parts or derivatives are commercially traded internationally, they be accompanied by documentation from the country of origin that provides assurance that the trade will not lead to endangerment or extinction. Also, some species are on Appendix II because they look so much like some Appendix I species that it is prudent to make sure that they are properly documented.

But listing species on either of these appendices requires a vote among the member nations of CITES, and all too often geopolitical and economic considerations outweigh science and conservation in determining the outcome of the vote.

However, the hellbender is not an international species. It is found only in the United States and therefore it is a perfect candidate for an Appendix III listing, which any country signatory to CITES can provide for any native wild species of fauna or flora at its own discretion, without an international vote. It acts just like an Appendix II listing, but only for animals from the country involved. It does not apply to domestic use at all and does not prevent international trade, but it does require that specimens so traded be obtained legally, even after they leave the United States. An Appendix III listing is not a panacea that will save the species by itself, but it is a means of reducing the incentive of poachers to remove hellbenders from the wild. In Asia people have paid up to $1,700 for a single hellbender.

So, even if you have never seen a hellbender, you can help these wonderful, somewhat prehistoric, all-American animals simply by telling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that you support an Appendix III listing of the species under CITES.

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