By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website, Washington DC
Illegal hunting is bringing the Chinese giant salamander, the world's largest amphibian, to the brink of extinction.
Giant salamander numbers have fallen sharply
Numbers of the salamander, which can grow to 50kg (110lb), have fallen sharply in recent decades.
Ways to stem the decline of amphibians are being discussed at a meeting in Washington DC, which will end with the launch of a global action plan.
Some experts think the giant salamander can become a flagship conservation species like the tiger and elephant.
With a maximum length of a metre and a half (5ft), the giant salamanders of China and Japan are truly huge compared with other amphibians.
But their very size makes them easy and lucrative prey for hunters, who can sell the flesh for around US$100 per kg (£30 per lb).
They are protected species; but in China, illegal hunting is bringing them within sight of extinction.
How many there are left nationally is not known; but where populations have been studied, falls of around 80% in three generations - about 45 years - have been registered.
"In the 1960s, more than 15,000 kg were harvested each year from one single prefecture in Hunan province," Michael Lau, an amphibian and reptile specialist at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, told the BBC News website.
How amphibian species are being overexploited around the world
"Then in the 1970s, only around 2,500 to 3,000 could be harvested each year. They are easy to catch, hiding in rock crevasses during the day, and people know where to find them."
Dr Lau chairs the working group looking at "over-harvesting" of amphibians at the Washington summit.
The group has collated evidence showing that a large number of species are being collected at unsustainable levels, for food, medicine, and the pet trade; it is one factor, though not the biggest, behind the global decline in amphibians which sees almost a third of species at some risk of extinction.
More than 30 varieties of amphibian are used in Chinese traditional medicine use.
Frogs of the Phyllomedusa genus are used as a hallucinogen (Image: Esteban Lavilla)
"China is the country where this is the biggest problem," said Dr Lau, "but in many South-East Asian countries, frog is a staple food item.
"There is also a problem with African species such as the goliath frog from Cameroon, the largest frog in the world, which is hunted as food; and then there is the pet trade, with animals like the Mantellas from Madagascar."
In the market
The meeting here also heard of widespread hunting for food and medicine in south and central America.
"In various parts of Bolivia and Peru, for example, frogs are eaten as food by locals and by tourists," Esteban Lavilla from the Fundacíon Miguel Lillo in Argentina told the BBC News website.
"Some recipes call for 30 frogs for a single dish. Then you have local people taking them for medicine as well; and there are connections to magic, so that for example the picture of someone may be put in the mouth of a frog and the mouth sewn up - that would be someone that you don't like."
The deliberations here have concluded that a range of actions is needed to combat over-harvesting; developing specific plans for each threatened species, raising awareness among local people, monitoring trade, lobbying for law enforcement and introducing programmes of sustainable use where appropriate.
But the problem remains that some species are needed as a staple source of protein, while others are highly profitable.
Changing of the times
Michael Lau believes that attitudes towards amphibians are changing down the human generations.
"In Hong Kong people ate all kinds of animals in the 1960s - frogs, snakes, birds and so on.
Giant salamanders of China and Japan are the world's biggest amphibians (Image: Gerry Marantelli)
"But nowadays the young people don't want to eat them - the mainstream sentiment has shifted to conserving wildlife.
"If older people want to eat them now, they have to go across the border."
For some species, like the Chinese giant salamander, the question is whether mainstream sentiment will change fast enough to prevent them disappearing completely.