Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance
“Amphibians have existed for over 100 million years — they are survivors. Their sudden decline and extinction is indicative of something drastic that’s happening to an entire class of animals — it’s an unprecedented crisis.”
Around the world, amphibians are facing population declines and extinctions at an alarming rate. Experts estimate that 32 percent of the world’s 5,743 amphibian species are classified as being threatened with extinction, and at least 122 species have gone extinct since 1980. Threats such as habitat loss, a newly emerging fungal disease, invasive species, and climate change cannot all be addressed through traditional conservation measures.
The Amphibian Species Group, part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, has developed an ambitious plan to halt or reverse rates of decline in amphibians and identify and try solutions to ensure their long-term conservation. Robin Moore, an Amphibian Conservation Officer with the Group’s Amphibian Action Fund, discusses the Fund’s efforts to support amphibian conservation projects in Mesoamerica.
Q: What are the major threats to amphibian species?
Moore: Habitat loss is the main threat to amphibians around the world. Although there are a huge number of species for which we do not yet have data, it is estimated that around 30 percent of all amphibians are threatened, and 90 percent of those threatened species are impacted by habitat loss.
Another major threat in Latin America is a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, or chytrid, which has been sweeping through amphibian populations and causing declines and disappearances. Not much is known about chytrid, but we are gradually getting more information. We don’t yet fully understand the extent of its impact or why it exists in some areas and not in others. In some instances, some species seem to carry the disease and are not affected, while others are heavily impacted. We do know that the fungus does not survive at high temperatures, and so the disease can be treated in captivity by exposing infected species to high temperatures.
They are also affected by the interactions of climate change — such as changes in radiation, temperature, or moisture levels — with disease. A fairly recent paper found that the changing climate has made conditions more favorable for the chytrid fungus, and it may also be that climate change is lowering frog’s immunity to the disease. We need more integrated studies that look at the combined effects of these different threats. New and creative strategies are needed. Habitat loss can be dealt with through traditional conservation measures – but it is newly emerging threats such as disease and climate change that cannot be.
Q: How is amphibian decline an indicator of overall ecosystem health?
Moore: Amphibians have existed for over 100 million years — they are survivors. Their sudden decline and extinction crisis is indicative of something drastic that’s happening to an entire class of animals — it’s an unprecedented crisis. A huge concern is that amphibian declines are happening in protected areas, which should be pristine habitat — so traditional measures used to conserve animal species do not apply to amphibians. One of the high profile cases is the golden toad (Bufo periglenes), which suddenly disappeared from Monteverde in Costa Rica. This alerted the scientific community to this phenomenon of enigmatic decline, and instances of declines in protected areas are becoming more numerous. Many experts think that the chytrid disease is sweeping through these areas and wiping out species. Amphibians are clearly indicating that something is happening in these ecosystems and that they are not healthy.
There are a number of characteristics of amphibians that make them sensitive to changes in the environment. Because of their permeable skin, they are very sensitive to subtle changes and are more susceptible to disease. Also, a lot of species lay eggs without protective shells. A lot of amphibians live in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats and are affected by contamination or changes in both ecosystems.
Amphibians have been likened to the canaries in the coal mine, being the first to disappear when the ecosystem isn’t healthy. It’s possible that what we’re seeing with amphibians will be followed with changes in other classes — a lot of the factors that affect amphibians, such as emerging diseases, could also affect humans.
Q: The fact that amphibians are indicator species is why the Rainforest Alliance chose a frog for its logo. Tell us about the Amphibian Action Fund; why was it formed?
Moore: When the scale of amphibian decline was recognized, an Amphibian Conservation Summit was convened in Washington DC, in September of 2005 by the World Conservation Union and Conservation International. The summit brought together experts from around the world to develop a comprehensive amphibian conservation action plan of the steps required to halt their decline. In response, the IUCN Species Survival Commission formed an Amphibian Specialist Group to implement the plan. Previously, the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force was supporting research and raising awareness about the crisis, but it was realized that a task force wasn’t quite enough to tackle the scale of this problem – something more comprehensive was needed, so the task force folded into the Amphibian Specialist Group. We will soon have a Web site at www.amphibians.org that will have more information about the group.
The plan has an estimated budget of $400 million, which the Amphibian Action Fund aims to raise. We also have a small grants program through the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) that provides funds for amphibian conservation in Northern and Southern Mesoamerica, as well as the Caucasus and Mountains of Southwest China in Asia, and the Guinean Forests of West Africa, Succulent Karoo, and the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests in Africa. We put out a call for proposals on FrogLog, a bimonthly newsletter published by the Amphibian Specialist Group. We also take a proactive approach to soliciting proposals and work with applicants to develop strong proposals for amphibian conservation projects in these regions.
Q: The CEPF Web site says that “the fund places the highest priority on projects aimed at research, capacity building, and concrete conservation action that reverses the decline of threatened endemic species.” What are some examples of these concrete conservation actions?
Moore: We are seeking formal protection and improved management of habitat areas that are now only protected on paper. We will fund capacity building projects to provide training in husbandry and developing the required infrastructure to carry out captive breeding. We are also interested in increasing local capacity to monitor amphibian populations — in a lot of places we have no idea what’s happening and there are a lot of people in the field who, with the right knowledge and training, could provide very useful information and alert us when a population is suddenly declining.
Q: What kinds of projects are you looking for in Mesoamerica?
Moore: Mainly projects that focus on endangered species and that target a taxonomic group that we know little about. We also aim to fund research into disease or threats to amphibians. We will also fund habitat conservation projects if proposals indicate which amphibians are present in an area and how the project will benefit them.
Q: How does an organization apply for funds?
Moore: Interested parties should email me directly. I am actively seeking out good proposals, and the more proposals we receive, the better. We are reviewing proposals for Mesoamerica now. The typical award is $10,000.
Q: Are there specific target areas within the Mesoamerican hotspots?
Moore: We are targeting areas that represent the last remaining sites for at least one amphibian species identified by Alliance for Zero Extinction. If that site is lost, then the species is lost. Conservation International teamed up with the American Bird Conservancy to help the NGO ProAves to acquire and protect a site in Colombia that represented the last remaining site for five amphibian species and contains a number of other threatened species. The 1,600-acre site, located in the Santa Marta mountains, was recently highlighted by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a global priority for conservation and so we seized the opportunity to save it from being divided into lots for vacation homes. ProAves now manages the site and is planning to develop ecotourism activities to ensure the long-term protection and management of the area.
Q: How will you monitor the success of the Fund?
Moore: We have a number of long-term and short-term goals. One is the conservation of amphibians and their habitats and the prevention of extinctions. We’ll monitor this by looking at whether viable populations of amphibians are being re-established, or if extinctions are prevented — if we manage to keep species from going extinct, we consider that a success. We’d also like to see a downgrading of the IUCN Red list threat status of 500 endangered or critically endangered amphibian species within the next 10 to 20 years. Another goal is improved protected areas management practices that take amphibians into account. We’d also like to establish more protected areas, as there are a lot of threatened species that live outside of them.
In the short-term, we aim for a reversal in the decline of threatened amphibian species and the implementation of appropriate long-term measures to maintain this reversal. One of our indicators is a positive population growth rate in 10 percent of the endangered amphibians occurring within each of the hotspot regions for which the Amphibian Action Fund has funding. Finally, we’d like to see one-third of the projects we fund become larger, permanent projects to fill the current gap in long-term studies and data.
Q: Saving as much time as possible is crucial to amphibian conservation, so how is the Fund sharing its grantees’ findings?
Moore: We’ll monitor the number of peer-reviewed publications that are written by our grantees and will strongly encourage grantees to share their findings in FrogLog, which is free online and is also available on www.amphibian.org. The Web site is also going to feature reports from the field to share experiences and findings from projects around the world. We’ll also highly encourage grantees to submit their data to the Global Amphibian Assessment, which is part of the Amphibian Specialist Group. Through this Assessment Web site, we’ll be able to keep track of what these projects are finding and whether they are filling in data gaps.
Q: What do you think is a particularly promising amphibian conservation project or strategy?
Moore: Overall, habitat protection is probably the most important strategy because, for nine out of every 10 threatened amphibian species, habitat loss is the major threat. Additionally, strategies such as captive breeding are only effective conservation tools if coupled with in situ conservation measures to protect habitats. That said, habitat protection alone may not be enough to ensure the survival of amphibians in a particular area, because amphibians may succumb to threats such as disease and climate change that do not respect protected area boundaries. In these instances other tools need to be adopted along with habitat protection — such as the establishment of captive assurance colonies, research into the causes of declines and ways to mitigate threats, and local capacity building to enable the long-term success of such actions.