With the United Nations Biodiversity Conference taking place in Montreal this week, we thought it would be a good opportunity to look at how Japan is handling issues involving biodiversity here. Environmental journalist Mara Budgen comes on the show to talk about the Japanese giant salamander, which has been designated a "special natural monument" under Japanese law but is still vulnerable to extinction.

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Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Welcome to Deep Dive From The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, also known as COP15, is taking place in Montreal this week. Its main purpose is to get governments to agree on a new set of goals to halt and reverse nature loss. 

So you’ve heard of the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal that governments are trying to limit warming to? Well at COP15 the magic number is 30%, the amount of land and water we need to conserve by 2030 to keep the planet’s biodiversity intact. 

Japan is supporting this 30x30 goal and our guest today thinks that a good place for it to start would be to protect the Japanese giant salamander. 

News clip 01:00

Shaun McKenna 01:22

Mara Budgen is an environmental journalist who contributes to The Japan Times and other publications like The Guardian and LifeGate, Italy’s foremost media source on sustainability. Mara, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Mara Budgen  01:33  

Hi, Shaun. It's nice to be back.

Shaun McKenna  01:35  

You're currently writing a piece with Japanese author and freelance reporter Kantaro Suzuki about the Japanese giant salamander. Now this feature won't run for another week — luckily, I pulled some strings and saw an advanced copy — but can you tell our listeners what one of these creatures looks like?

Mara Budgen  01:51  

Yeah, I was actually lucky enough to see a few Japanese giant salamanders on a recent reporting trip. And so when you think of a salamander, right, I guess what you imagine is a kind of slimy lizard. And that's exactly what Japanese giant salamanders are like, but a much bigger version of it. So when you actually see them in rivers, which are their natural habitat, they kind of blend in with their surroundings. So they're kind of a speckled brown color, with a little bit of yellow kind of thrown in there. So their skin actually makes them look like a big river stone, kind of thing. Although they're much sort of longer and flatter than a river stone would be. And they also have some of these cute little features that salamander nerds love, such as they have like little cute little eyes. And quite bizarrely, their fingers look like a baby's fingers, or like, like a human baby. Yeah. So they're actually quite cute. But maybe the craziest thing is that their biology has actually changed very little over the last 23 million years, according to the most recent estimates. And so when you actually see a Japanese giant salamander, you get the sense that you're really in front of this kind of living dinosaur. 

Shaun McKenna 03:11


News clip 03:12

Shaun McKenna 03:32 

Mara, where do these things live? 

Mara Budgen 03:34

So to this day, Japanese giant salamanders are found throughout western and central Japan in areas such as Shikoku, Chugoku and Kansai. So, for example, there are important salamander habitats in Tottori Prefecture, and that's actually where I recently visited, so I visited an area near Mount Daisen, which is Tottori’s highest mountain. So I feel like Japan is actually quite lucky to be the home of this creature, because there are only actually a handful of giant salamander species around the world. So the other ones live in China and the United States, and that's it. And so the Japanese one is actually the second-largest giant salamander species in the world. So the longest specimen ever recorded was 1.5 meters long, which I guess is about five feet. And the heaviest was 44 kilos, that’s insane.

Shaun McKenna  04:35  

So not really something you'd have for a pet.

Mara Budgen  04:37  

No, no, I guess not. Unless you had a lot of space. So, OK, so I'm more of a cat person. So I'm not an expert on dogs. But I suppose that means that maybe a kind of smaller to average-size giant salamander is about the size of a small to medium dog. But the big ones, you know, maybe they're more like the size of an Alsatian or an Akita inu. But of course, their shape is very different, so don't imagine an Akita just floating in the river.

Shaun McKenna  05:09  

Well, when I looked it up online to see what it looked like, I also learned that it's considered a “special natural monument.” What does that mean?

Mara Budgen  05:17  

So you know, the Japanese giant salamander has been a part of local cultures and areas around Japan for a really long time. And as early as 1952, the government passed a law that established this animal as a kind of national cultural asset that needed to be protected. So this means that it's been illegal to hunt Japanese giant salamanders for the past 70 years. Because before then, in fact, it was quite common for people to eat them 

Yeah. Apparently they taste a bit like chicken. I don't know if this is true.

Shaun McKenna  05:53  

Everything does.

Mara Budgen  05:58  

Right? So it's, just so you know, it's also illegal to even just touch a Japanese giant salamander unless you have a special license for it. And usually it's either researchers or government officials who are given this license. So you know, Shaun, if you're ever in Tottori Prefecture, you see a salamander, giant salamanders, and you want to pet it? Don't. Because you risk, well, interfering with the animal but also you risk being fined up to ¥500,000. Which I think is about US$3,500, $3,600? Something like that? Yeah.

Shaun McKenna  06:35  

Well, considering its special status, I was kind of surprised to learn that the giant salamander is considered a threatened species.

Mara Budgen  06:42  

Yeah, it's a bit confusing. So, just to be clear, the legal protections that I just spoke about, they don't actually say much about conserving this giant salamander’s habitat. And that's kind of one of the problems in this whole issue. But yes, as you said, you know, the Japanese giant salamander is protected as a kind of cultural asset and so it would, it's natural that people think that they're doing OK, in terms of their status in the wild. But what many people don't know is that the situation is actually really dire. And that's actually what motivated me and my co-author Kantaro to write this piece for the JT. So, officially, the Japanese giant salamander is considered vulnerable to extinction, both by the Japanese government and by the international scientific community. So you actually mentioned COP15 earlier? Yeah. So literally, just a few days ago, during the conference, an organization called the IUCN, which stands for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, so this organization announced that it has updated its Red List of Threatened Species. So for those of you who don't know, the Red List is the world's most comprehensive list, indicating the extinction risk of animal, fungi and plant species. Guess what one of the species that was updated was actually the Japanese giant salamander. So until very recently, it was classified as being near threatened. But now its status has become worse. And it's now considered vulnerable to extinction. And what this means, in practical terms, is that it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild. So that's quite sad. And if the situation were to get even worse, the Japanese giant salamanders, Red List status might even change to being endangered or critically endangered. And for example, its cousin, the Chinese giant salamander that lives in China, of course, is critically endangered. But hopefully, we can prevent that from happening.

Shaun McKenna  09:13  

What's the main threat to this species?

Mara Budgen  09:16  

So one of the main threats is habitat degradation. And this is actually the main factor that has led 40% of amphibian species around the world to be threatened with extinction. So it's a massive problem. And in the case of the Japanese giant salamander, habitat degradation is caused mainly by concrete in rivers. So I don't know if you've noticed, Shaun, but throughout Japan, you know, so many rivers have like big artificial structures in them. You know, big dams, of course, is an obvious example, but there are also smaller dams that are actually technically called “weirs.”

Shaun McKenna  09:56  

OK, what's uh, what's the weir then?

Mara Budgen  09:59  

So here's just a smaller down and it is used not just for flood control, like a dam is, but it's also often used for agriculture, so to actually irrigate fields. And so, yeah, so these structures have various function and actually you know, talking about weirs, when I was in Tottori together with my co-author Kantaro, and we were in an area called the Nawa River Basin, which is near Mount Daisen, and there there are a lot of weirs. So basically they're like small dams, right? They're like small walls, literally in the river. And they're anywhere between 50 centimeters, and maybe 2 meters tall. So some of them are even, like, taller than me, quite significantly taller than me, in fact. And in the case of that area, they're mainly used for agriculture. So basically, to irrigate fields by, you know, speeding up the water and making sure that it goes towards the fields. So, as I said, some of these walls are taller than I am, right. And for a Japanese giant salamander, these are massive, artificial barriers, literally. So salamanders, you know, their natural behavior is to move along the river. And so when you have these weirs and dams as well in the river, they can maybe move downstream. But then the problem is they can't move back up, because they physically can't climb over or around the concrete. So imagine literally having a concrete wall in front of you, and not being able to climb over it. And then, you know, you turn around and try to move along the side, and you can't do that either, because there's a concrete embankment, which is fundamentally another kind of, you know, wall or barrier and you can't move, you know, around the weir, either. 

And I know that earlier, you were talking to Joe and to Chris, about climate change. That's right, right. You know, climate change actually affects Japanese giant salamanders quite significantly, because more frequent and violent torrential rain actually causes them to be washed downstream more. And therefore, because of the, you know, the concrete structures, they're not able to move back up. And so the fact that salamanders can't move freely along rivers means that their habitat is broken up or fragmented, to use a more technical term. And when animals exist in smaller, fragmented populations, they're more at risk from suffering from adverse events, whether natural or caused by humans, and therefore they are more vulnerable to extinction. 

Shaun McKenna 12:34

Yeah, I never thought of it that way. 

Mara Budgen 12:36

Right? It's actually a massive problem not only for salamanders, for giant salamanders, but for many species around the world. And when we think about habitat degradation, another issue is actual physical destruction of habitat, right? And this also affects Japanese giant salamanders. So if you build a concrete structure in the river, you're completely altering the natural environment of that river. And in particular, for these creatures, what they do is that they find holes, or kind of dens between rocks or natural features in the river such as vegetation, and they use them to hide during the day, because they're nocturnal animals, and they also use these dens to breed and nest their eggs. So if dens are destroyed by concrete, this also affects salamanders, reproductive behavior. 

Shaun McKenna  13:29  

Actually, you've written about the problems of concrete structures in Japan's waters before, specifically the seawalls that are erected along the coast. We can include a link to that piece in the show notes. In that piece you spoke to Jean-Marc Takaki of Save Katoku, who are trying to tackle the seawall problem. In this piece on the salamander, you detail the efforts of Richard Pearce, who founded the non-profit Sustainable Daisen, can you tell us who he is?

Mara Budgen  13:57  

Sure. So Richard Pearce was actually the inspiration for this piece. So I'd actually like to thank him for that. So last year, Pearce founded an NPO called Sustainable Daisen with the explicit goal of conserving Japanese giant salamanders in the Nawa River Basin. And that's where Kantaro and I went to do research for this story. As I mentioned earlier,

News clip  14:22  

Mara Budgen  14:52  

So the reason that Pearce got so interested in this issue is that he's very passionate about conservation and about animals. And he actually lives in the town of Daisen. So where the Nawa River is, so I guess you could say that he's trying to protect his own backyard.

Shaun McKenna  15:09  

Great place to start. right, exactly. 


Mara Budgen  15:11  

Right, exactly, you need to start somewhere. So Pearce, who is British by the way, he works as an eco-tourism consultant. And what that means is that he designs nature and adventure tours and even accompanies people on them.

Shaun McKenna  15:25  

OK, so this is something that I could possibly go on. Like, my next vacation getaway.

Mara Budgen  15:29  

Of course, Tottori is amazing, you definitely should. So actually, in 2017, Pearce was asked by the Japanese Environment Ministry to create a tour in another town in Tottori, which is called Nichinan, to take inbound tourists, so foreign tourists, to see Japanese giant salamanders there. Because it's a really important habitat for these animals. 

So, at this point in his career in his life, Pearce kind of realized how bad the situation was, or is for Japanese giant salamanders. So one of the triggers for that was that they tried to build a forest road in Nichinan, which actually threatens Japanese giant salamanders — and just so you know, this project has been delayed, but it hasn't been canceled. And then Pearce also realized that in his hometown, in Daisen, even though there are a lot of Japanese giant salamanders, there are also a lot of weirs, and a lot of concrete in the rivers. But there's also basically no direct conservation initiatives. So basically, he realized that something needed to be done to save the salamander populations. And so one of the main goals of his NPO, Sustainable Daisen, is to actually build ramps for Japanese giant salamanders. I know this is a bit of a weird concept.

Shaun McKenna  17:05  

Yeah, so a ramp that just goes along the side of the river?

Mara Budgen  17:09  

Across the weir. So basically, whether that's on the side or in the middle, I guess it depends on you know, the structure in that specific place. But it's literally a ramp that connects the riverbed below to the top of the weir, so that the salamanders can actually walk up them, and therefore move upstream, right? 

And, you know, interestingly, actually, ramps do exist in other parts of Japan, but only here and there, quite a periodical kind of distribution. And according to basically all the conservationists I spoke to, a lot more of them are needed, just because there's so many, you know, concrete structures in rivers in Japan.

Shaun McKenna  17:52  

Right. What do the ramps look like?

Mara Budgen 17:54

Like, exactly like a ramp. As in…

Shaun McKenna 17:57

What are they made of? 

Mara Budgen  17:59  

Well, usually they're made of concrete. Which is ironic, I know. But it's just the way it is, right?

Shaun McKenna  18:08  

Still, these are structures that the salamander can actually utilize. So it's not the same as the other concrete structures that are…

Mara Budgen  18:17  

Well, what changes is the angle, right? Because a weir or a dam, I mean, dams are much bigger than weirs, but even a weir, which is a small dam, you know, it's kind of a vertical structure. So it would literally have to climb, whilst a ramp, you know, will be put at an angle whereby they can just kind of walk up and therefore move upstream. And when I went to Tottori recently, I was very lucky because I actually got to see Sustainable Daisen building its first ramps. So the NPO was quite new, it was founded last year, but they've already managed, you know, to take this direct conservation action, and what they've done is that they've built the first four ramps in the Nawa River Basin. So it's four ramps across four weirs, so that's one for each weir. And in this case, they're actually built from natural materials. So from river stones, which were literally moved, you know, to that location, and with wood. So these structures that I just mentioned that Sustainable Daisen has built, they're actually only temporary, because they're not built with durable materials or not in a way that will last a very long time. But what Sustainable Daisen aims to do is to get permission and funding to convert these into permanent structures made out of durable materials, such as concrete or even metal. And they also aim, the organization also aims to build more ramps in other parts of the Nawa River Basin.

Shaun McKenna  19:56  

Where is Sustainable Daisen getting the funding for this? 

Mara Budgen  19:59  

Yes, that’s a good question. So this is a bit of an issue, because it's actually been quite hard for the organization to get locals on board to help fund these kinds of conservation projects. So Sustainable Daisen got permission from the local government to build the first ramps, right, the temporary ramps that I spoke about, but it has actually had to pay for everything itself, with donations from its supporters. So the government hasn't funded this at all. And, you know, this is just kind of one example of a wider issue that concerns not only conservation of Japanese giant salamanders, but other creatures as well in Japan. So, for example, looking at Japanese giant salamanders, you know, the law doesn't protect their habitat. And there's actually no national level project, or policy, not even from the Environment Ministry, to stop the species from going extinct. I was actually quite surprised when I learned that. So basically, what happens is that any kind of conservation is left up to local communities, right. But many of these local communities, which are in rural areas, are facing their own challenges, right? And so conservation isn't always at the top of the priority list. So you know, first off, we mentioned earlier that many people don't even know that the Japanese giant salamander is in trouble, and may not even be aware about the importance of environmental issues in general, you know, issues such as protecting habitats and biodiversity. And another issue is that many rural communities are already struggling with tough social problems, such as depopulation and declining economies. So what this means is that on the one hand, there are fewer human and financial resources to deal with species conservation. And, on the other hand, a general sense amongst the people that whatever resources are available, these should be spent on other issues. So you know, it all in the end boils down to what value we attribute to conservation, and where this stands in relation to other issues. 

Shaun McKenna  22:30  

Yeah, it seems like this one issue kind of draws upon layers and layers of issues that need to be addressed.

Are experts recommending anything in the short term to solve this issue?

Mara Budgen  22:57  

So the most immediate thing that needs to be done is that conservation actions to protect the Japanese giant salamander need to be stepped up and it needs to happen fast. So I mentioned ramps, there are also other things that can be done, such as stopping more river construction in sensitive habitats, and also conducting more research, because there's actually very little funding for that at the moment. And, you know, I guess, it's nice to also think of how we can all contribute, you know, what kind of individual actions people can take. And I'd say the very first thing that needs to happen is to get the word out there. So thanks for inviting me to the podcast.

Shaun McKenna  23:37  

Doing my part. 

Mara Budgen  23:39  

You can feel good with yourself. No, jokes aside. So I've worked in environmental journalism for a few years now. And even in my short career, I've seen these kinds of topics become more visible, even in mainstream media. But what that comes down to ultimately is getting that critical mass of people interested and vocal about these issues. And from my experience in Japan, conservation in general, and Japanese giant salamander conservation, in particular, isn't really on everybody's lips.

Shaun McKenna 24:20

No, it's not. 

Mara Budgen 24:21

It's not just me, OK. So in terms of what else, you know, we can all do, of course, supporting organizations involved in conservation is definitely very important. So we were talking about the tours before, right that Pearce runs in Daisen. There are various tours, but one of them is that you can actually go and see and kind of get to know Japanese giant salamanders. And so by participating in the tour, you can, of course, get to know the animal. And you can also help support Sustainable Daisen’s projects. But another thing that that does is that it sends a signal, right? If I participate in these kinds of eco-tourism initiatives, it sends a signal to local communities that healthy, protected ecosystems can also generate economic value.

Shaun McKenna  25:11  

Ah, yes. So I think some of those suggestions you kind of talked about might also be considered long term. But I want to ask anyway, what are some of the longer term answers that people are pursuing?

Mara Budgen  25:24  

Sure, of course, there's many things that can be done. I did mention raising awareness. I just want to emphasize that again, because obviously, how can people solve a problem that they don't even know exists? So first, Sustainable Daisen, what they've done, for example, is that they've donated books about Japanese giant salamanders to every single classroom in Daisen, so the kids can just pick them up and read them or their teachers can read them to them. And so basically, working on environmental education is key — and it needs to start early. All right. And in terms of more long-term solutions, the approach to conservation in Japan needs to be improved. I've heard this said by a lot of people. And this would require the government putting its weight behind the issue. So I spoke to a Japanese giant salamander expert in the U.S., he’s called Mizuki Takahashi. And he's actually Japanese, but he moved to the U.S. partly because there's so little funding for conservation research, here in Japan. And there are also very few jobs for ecologists. So again, it kind of boils down to getting that political will to invest in conservation. And I do want to be clear here, Shaun, you know, when we're talking about saving the Japanese giant salamander, this isn't only about one species, you know, we can both admit, this is quite a niche species at that, right? So at a press conference that recently took place at COP15, one of the IUCN lead scientists stated very clearly, that whatever is decided in these high level negotiations in Montreal, it will not work unless individual species are conserved. And in order to conserve the species, you need to look at the entire ecosystem in which it lives. So there's no chance of saving the Japanese giant salamander without intervening to improve its habitat, which in turn would of course benefit many other species, including humans as well.

Shaun McKenna  27:41  

Right, OK. Well, I have to say the article itself was a fascinating read. I didn't expect that by the end of it, I'd be planning my own trip to Tottori to take a look at a giant salamander.

Mara Budgen  27:53  

I'm very glad to hear that, you know, I went to Tottori to research the piece, right, and I actually wasn't expecting it to be so beautiful and just to enjoy myself so much. So the particular area where I was near, Mount Daisen, it's an interesting mix of a kind of coastal environment because it's very near the sea. But with the kind of imposing figure of Mount Daisen always looming over you. And to be honest, seeing Japanese giant salamanders was really the cherry on the cake.

Shaun McKenna  28:22  

OK, well, Mara Budgen, thank you very much for coming on Deep Dive.

Mara Budgen  28:25  

Thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna 28:30

Thanks again to Mara Budgen for coming back to Deep Dive. I just want to note that her article hasn’t been released yet, it is set to come out next week, follow us on Twitter at @Japandeepdive and we’ll send out a link to the piece once it comes online. 

Elsewhere in The Japan Times this week, the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation has declared WAR … as the kanji of the year for 2022. The kanji “sen” also means battle and struggle, and Tadasu Takahashi has written about that for our Bilingual section

We’ve also started our 2022 in review pieces with film critic Mark Schilling up first, outlining the year in cinema — from the hype around “Drive My Car” at the start of the year to more non-Japanese filmmakers coming to the fore in the nation’s film industry. 

Production on this episode came courtesy of Dave Cortez, the outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd and the theme music was written and performed by LLLL. Until next time, podtsukaresama!