Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“The Alliance for Zero Extinction recorded 944 animal species in imminent danger of extinction, or threatened species reduced to a single population, and more than half of them are amphibians. These are concentrated in some 300 sites where we should intervene now, or more species will be lost.”
When the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its Global Amphibian Assessment in 2004, the eyes of the conservation community turned toward amphibians. The Assessment found that 32% of the world’s nearly 5,500 known amphibian species were in some category of threat, according to the criteria in the Red List of Threatened Species. It was also estimated that there were another 23% of amphibian species with insufficient data for evaluation and of these, it can be assumed that at least one-third are also threatened.
These data indicated that the percentage of threatened amphibians was higher than that of birds or mammals, motivating the conservation community to try to halt the loss of amphibian species.
Jaime García-Moreno, executive director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), talked with us about the birth of the Alliance and its work to try to save this imperiled group of animals, valuable indicators of ecosystem health and sources of potent medicines for humans.
Question: How and why did the Amphibian Survival Alliance begin?
García-Moreno: The year after the publication of the IUCN assessment, many initiatives emerged to attack the problem. The Action Plan for Amphibian Conservation was established and the IUCN created the Amphibian Specialist Group, a group of experts to encourage conservation actions, particularly those in the field. At the same time, we saw the launch of the successful Amphibian Ark initiative, which gathers species that are in imminent danger of extinction in order to breed them in captivity and hopefully later reintroduce them when their habitat is determined to be suitable and disease-free.
These emergency efforts were successful, but we couldn’t make much progress on other fronts due to a lack of resources, particularly financial support, and because of a lack of coordination among the various initiatives being carried out by different institutions.
The ASA was first presented at the Mini-Summit on Amphibians held at the London Zoological Society in 2009. The idea was that as an international alliance, it could address the problem using a broader outlook, expanding institutional linkages beyond individuals and groups of experts, improving opportunities for dialogue by creating a single voice on behalf of amphibians and, hopefully, improving fundraising opportunities.
Q: What groups are involved in the ASA?
García-Moreno: The ASA is a global initiative launched by the IUCN that currently consists of zoos in Europe and the United States such as the Detroit Zoo, the North of England Zoological Society in Chester, and the Frankfurt Zoo, NGOs including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Conservation International, and research and conservation institutions like the London Zoological Society.
Q: How much interest does the public have in amphibian conservation?
García-Moreno: Very little. We have failed to communicate and explain amphibians’ ecological and medicinal value, the key reasons why they are important for humans. Furthermore, not all amphibians are physically attractive and some are also very difficult to see in their habitat, so people don’t relate to them the same way they do with mammals and birds. In recent years, some 1,500 new amphibian species have been discovered, some spectacularly beautiful, but people don’t know about them. We really need a strong campaign to promote amphibians in general and their relationship to people.
Q: Why are amphibians so important?
García-Moreno: In many places, amphibians form a major part of the vertebrate biomass and fulfill a very important ecological role. One example is their role in the food chain – amphibians are preyed on by almost everything; there are even frogs that eat frogs! And they are also important predators. For example, frogs were used in the rice paddies in Asia to control insect populations.
Amphibians also perform very different functions in their aquatic and terrestrial phases; they are links in the food chain and part of the energy and nutrient flows between the two biomes. On the other hand, since these animals breathe through their skins, they are very sensitive to ecological disturbances and are therefore good indicators of ecosystem health.
The skins of many amphibian species also contain chemical substances of medicinal value. The frog Epipedobates tricolor produces a chemical with anesthetic properties that is said to be 200 times more potent than morphine. Last month, Dr. Chris Shaw, a professor in Ireland, was recognized for his studies on amphibians and the isolation of substances with potential for the treatment of cancer. There are also some chemicals that may be useful in treating AIDS and for developing families of antibiotics – an important finding since many bacteria have now developed resistance to antibiotics.
Q: One of the main threats to amphibians comes from a fungal infection. What is this disease and how does it affect them?
García-Moreno: The chytrid fungus has no cure and can quickly annihilate susceptible amphibian populations. The current hypothesis is that the fungus spread in the 1950s when the toad Xenopus laevis, a carrier of the fungus, was sent to laboratories all over the world. From 1980 to today, an estimated 160 amphibian species can no longer be found and may be extinct, and it is suspected that several have disappeared because of the fungus. Some studies suggest that some bacteria may serve as a vaccine against the infection, but we still don’t know anything for sure. Since the fungus has no effect on people, it hasn’t received the attention needed to combat it, even though it could teach us a lot about the epidemiology and transmission of diseases spread by fungi.
Q: What other threats do amphibians face?
García-Moreno: Even greater than the chytrid epidemic is habitat loss due to urban development, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and the loss of wetlands. For example, very interesting and rich amphibian fauna live in Southeast Asia, but much of their original habitat is being lost to oil palm plantations. Known species are disappearing, almost certainly along with others that we haven’t yet been able to discover.
As most amphibians require water in either their aquatic or terrestrial phases, many populations are suffering from water pollution because of pesticides, fertilizers, runoff wastes, and more. Also, in many places water is exclusively managed for human use and consumption, causing the loss of important aquifers that serve as natural habitat.
The amphibian pet trade is also larger than we once thought; some species are favored for their size and because they breed well in captivity – their young could escape, become invasive species, and negatively impact local, native species. Species trafficking could also spread the chytrid fungus to places where it doesn’t currently exist.
Q: How is climate change affecting amphibians?
García-Moreno: Not long ago, we realized that amphibians were disappearing even in well-protected areas, and we attributed this to chytrid, but now we are also considering the role of climate change. Areas that once were ideal habitat for amphibians may cease to be so due to the effects of global warming. Another problem is that we don’t know enough about the phenomenon; we are not certain which factors we should focus on or which ones will have a stronger impact on amphibians. Is it the moisture of the leaf litter, the change in temperature, or the change from cloud forest to more open forest? We just don’t have enough information. We herpetologists have mainly focused on the most pressing problems today, somewhat ignoring climate change for now.
Q: What are ASA’s priorities?
García-Moreno: Without a doubt, safeguarding the species that are on the brink of extinction. The Alliance for Zero Extinction recorded 944 animal species in imminent danger of extinction, or those threatened species that have been reduced to a single population, and more than half of them are amphibians. They are concentrated in some 300 sites where we should intervene now or we will lose more species. We need to work with local communities and authorities, and we also need to coordinate captive breeding efforts so that we can gain some valuable time to implement a comprehensive conservation program.
Q: Can the private sector help save amphibians and their habitat?
García-Moreno: Of course. For example, we need to partner with businesses that manage water and soils so that they take amphibians into consideration. There was an interesting case on coffee farms in El Salvador, where it was discovered that frog populations remained healthy if pools of water on the coffee farm were left open during the breeding season. Something as simple as that! We must communicate with the private sector and find easy ways that they can help.
Q: Where are the highest priority areas for amphibian conservation?
García-Moreno: All of Central and South America, mainly in the Andes, where the chytrid epidemic is the worst. Also: places suffering from major habitat loss, such as Southeast Asia, where agricultural expansion for biofuels is a key threat.
Q: What’s next for the ASA’s organizational goals?
García-Moreno: Increasing the number of members and obtaining institutional support from herpetology and other associations. We also need to raise global awareness about amphibian conservation – we are already doing this by urging the member countries of the Convention on Biological Diversity to use their work with amphibians as indicators for meeting the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.