My amphibian adventure is about to go totally sci-fi. I’m going to witness the future of frog-kind and it’s like the plot of a bad B movie; featuring other-worldly amphibians, a space age frog pod, a killer fungus and a bunch of fiendish smugglers with frogs up their bums.
I’m in Panama, which is quite a shock after Colombia’s raw Latino charm. First up they use US dollars as their currency, which is a bit of an eye opener. The drive from the airport reveals a capital city with a skyline straight out of Miami Vice. I’m told by my taxi driver, who speaks to me in perfect American, that Panama city aspires to be the Dubai of Central America. Oh. Dear. I hated Dubai. A city of transitory superlatives, full of wanton souls acting out hollow lives in a Disneyland of western consumption. My heart sinks.
I’m plopped out of the cab into some bland suburb of pastel coloured high-rise condos resplendent with gun-toting door men. My hostel is an ugly modern house with what looks like an ashtray for a garden, just around the corner from a 4-lane highway and a supermarket the size of an airport. I feel a long way from the frogs.
But I’m not hanging about. I’m heading into the Panamanian highlands on a mission to visit EVACC – a space age amphibian evacuation centre nestled in the heart of an extinct volcanic crater.
It all sounds very Moonraker, so I’m half expecting Jaws and his pigtailed girlfriend to greet me off the bus. Instead, I’m met by the very wonderful Edgardo Griffith and his lovely wife Heidi - the original frog Samaritans.
Edgardo checks on his babies - each tank has temperature, light, moisture and ph monitored to suit the frog's needs.
Back in 2004 the deadly Chytrid fungus was steadily creeping south through Central America, killing thousands of frogs. Aware of what would happen when it hit Panama a team of pioneering frog scientists hatched a controversial plan to conduct the world’s first frog swoop. The idea was to mount a massive rescue operation to scoop up enough specimens ahead of the advancing fungal wave to create an amphibian ark.
The El Valle Amphibian Conservation Centre now supports over fifteen utterly unique species which thanks to the fungus, can no longer live outside this sterilised building. One of the key species they wanted to save was the awesome golden frog.
The rather poorly named golden frog is neither gold nor a frog but a terribly polite yellow toad, which likes to wave at other yellow toads it sees down by the stream. The theory is that streams are noisy places and the waving beats croaking over the din of running water in order to get laid or pick a fight. You can watch the absurdly hilarious sight of toad semaphore in the Attenborough clip below. It's brilliant.
Somewhat ironically for an animal that’s now extinct in the wild, the golden frog has always been a symbol of good luck. It’s the countries number one national treasure – the Panamanian equivalent of the panda. Rather like the Queen, the golden frog can be found looking mildly annoyed and waving at you from stamps, tea towels and other tourist trinkets.
..they even have a rana-loo. Just the place to have a lucky poo.
But fame has been this frog’s final undoing. Any golden frogs that survived the fungus were swiped from streams by illegal frog nappers and sold to fanatic collectors for up to $5000 a pair.
The illegal trade in frogs is a booming multi-million dollar industry that's making a significant dent in wild populations of many rare amphibians. For some strange reason amphibians have no official status and are lumped together with fish - a small legal detail which makes them easy to smuggle through customs amongst cargo of tropical fish.
Proving that even evolution makes mistakes - these Colombian dart frogs have inadvertently evolved a facsimile of the Japanese flag in their backs, making them highly sort after by Japanese collectors.
My sources tell me they’ve even heard of small time smugglers adopting an altogether kinkier approach - strapping frogs to their thighs or sticking them in tubes and smuggling them through customs up their bums. All of which makes you wonder how one would explain away a severe case of croaking or deal with an escapee poison dart frog heading north. It seems hard to believe.
But it's true. Earlier this year Hans Kurt Kubus was busted in New Zealand with no less than 44 lizards in his pants. And one very frightened trouser snake.
Conforming perfectly to national stereotypes, the dons of the frog smuggling world are in fact the Germans whose desire to be the first at everything even extends to frog collecting. Many of the world’s rarest amphibians end up being traded under the table at a huge herpetology fair in Germany, which is presumably crawling with Teutonic types with with herps in their pants.
The market is global. It's not just the German's who've got their finger in illegal the herp pie. I even found a story about a British TV producer of wildlife documentaries found with a bunch of rare frogs in his suitcase. Imagine that?
Edgardo takes me on a hike to explore the cloud forests surrounding El Valle. They look like a fantasyland for frogs, full of crystal clear streams and huge trees dripping with moss and bromeliads. But it's eerily silent – we hear just the one solitary frog calling during our walk. He tells me that the fungus wiped out 80% of the hundred or so species found here, many of which were found nowhere else on earth.
These frogs will not be able to return to their natural home until some clever scientist finds a cure for Chytrid. In the meantime the food chain is responding to the missing frogs - zoologists have already recorded the disappearance of some species of amphibian-eating snakes.
The forest of El Valle looks completely normal but is strangely silent
But there will be no point in finding a cure for the fungus if the cloud forests no longer exist. In a bizarre final twist to this story, the frogs are being replaced by another animal waiting to croak - US retirees. The Panamanian highlands are being sold off as a cheap place for Americans waiting to die - with acres of cloud forest being destroyed to create gated developments and golf courses. A sterilised version of nature suitable for American pensioners.
There is no denying that EVACC is a similarly strange place for frogs - a vision of a future where frogs exist only in sterile life support machines. But without Edgar and Heidi and EVACC these animals wouldn't exist at all.
I feel incredibly privileged to be able to hang out at EVACC. In fact I've chosen to spend my birthday cleaning poop out of tanks and feeding the frogs so that I can spend some quality time watching these amazing animals.
A juvenile Hemiphractus fasciatus, born at the centre
But my best birthday present is the arrival of a freshly metamorphosed golden froglet, which will share my birthday and is named after me. I am super chuffed for so many reasons.
EVACC may not look like a cloud forest but Heidi and Edgardo's extraordinary efforts to mimic nature in a plastic tank are clearly paying off. The frogs are not just surviving, but breeding like crazy. If all of EVACC’s bumper crop of golden frog tadpoles turn into toads they won’t know what to do with them all.
Which makes me wonder if Edgar and Heidi were allowed to sell off the spare frogs then perhaps they could help fund their conservation. And perhaps even prevent them from being stuck up German's bums. Well maybe.