I’m looking for a lost frog. The Mesopotamian beaked toad to be precise. It’s been missing for almost a hundred years, which some might say is beyond careless. The last person to see it, an American biologist by the name of Gladwyn Noble, was also the first person to discover it. I’m wondering whether the fact it’s been mislaid for so long has anything to do with the curious, frankly misleading, name he gave it. It suggests I should be looking for this amphibian Mr Burns behind a sofa in Turkey as oppose to scrabbling through leaf litter, as I am, in the Colombian jungle.
The reality is this missing toad is just one of thousands of frogs vanishing off the planet. The world’s amphibians are in the grips of the worst extinction crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped out, with over a third of all species heading for the exit sign. In many cases this is happening quite suddenly and mysteriously. The chief suspect is a deadly fungus which is being aided and abetted by the holy trinity of environmental bogeymen: climate change, pollution and habitat loss.
Colombia tops the charts for endangered species. The particular stories behind their disappearances, I’m about to discover, add a surreal twist to the already extraordinary global frog-icide. Our search for the beaked toad uncovers a topsy-turvy world of pharmaceutical frog-nappers, narco-terrorist pseudo-conservationists and German's with frogs up their bums. You couldn't make it up.
My quest begins in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, where I join a crack team of top international herpetologists, who have been dispatched here to track down the elusive beaked toad, as part of the charity Conservation International’s global search for lost frogs. Over the next few months there will be expeditions in 18 countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia to track down one hundred amphibians believed to be missing in action. Many are evolutionary oddities, distinct in their class, like the gastric brooding frog of Australia, which incubates its young in its stomach. Their loss is significant not just to nature but also to science. The hope is that this campaign will uncover secret populations still clinging on in pockets of wilderness that can then be conserved.
‘Colombia is frog central,’ expedition leader Dr Robin Moore tells me. ‘With nearly eight hundred recorded species, it almost certainly has the highest diversity. Brazil officially has a few more but it’s seven times the size of Colombia and more thoroughly surveyed. The exciting thing about this country is that so much of it has yet to be explored’
At this point of the story I should probably come clean. Like the rest of Team Frog I’m also utterly obsessed with amphibians. I love their freaky metamorphic lifestyle; I love their idiosyncratic biology and I love their endless diversity. You can never get bored of frogs. I’m baffled by the tyranny of cute, which sees the so-called charismatic mega-fauna command the lion’s share of attention and conservation dollars. You’ve seen one baby panda, you’ve seen them all. And while the world drools over cuddly furry things a whole class of animals is being erased from the planet, throwing the rest of the food chain into a tailspin. It’s, quite frankly, froggist – and potentially disastrous.
I recently spent six months travelling around Latin America investigating the amphibian declines for a documentary. But I’ve been desperate to visit Colombia as it holds the best opportunity for me to fulfill my life’s ambition, the discovery of a new species. Stuff the Mesopotamian beaked toad, I’m on a secret mission to discover the Lucy frog and achieve amphibian immortality.
All hail the hypno-toad; the New Granda cross banded treefrog has mesmerising qualities
Colombia’s geography reads like a biological explorer’s wish list; Amazon rainforest, tropical islands, vast savannas. It's got the lot. But it’s the tropical Andes that make it such a Darwinian machine - a contender for the most biodiverse place on earth.
Fellow frog hunter Dr Wes Sechrest of Global Wildlife Conservation tells me, ‘Everyone talks about saving the Amazon, which is of course important, but it’s largely homogenous. In terms of biodiversity these equatorial mountains are the real factories of evolution. But very little is being done to conserve them.’
Like islands in the sky, every mountain and valley has evolved its own set of unique species. But much of this biological treasure remains undiscovered. The cloud forests of the Andes have guerrillas in their mist: they are the hiding place for left wing rebel groups like the FARC whose reputation for kidnap, narco-trafficking and mass murder has understandably deterred all but the most dedicated biologists.
Which is why a mission like ours needs a political pilot. Ours is Alonso Quevedo, president of Pro Aves, Colombia’s biggest conservation organisation. He’s a taciturn chap with an arsenal of anecdotes more in keeping with a secret agent than a biologist.
‘To do conservation in this country you have to learn to live with the threat of guerrillas,’ he states matter-of-factly. ‘The FARC often chose to hide out in the thickest forest, so we’re both interested in the same areas’.
It clearly takes sizeable cojones to risk fieldwork in this country. A wrong move could cost you your life. Alonso’s colleague Juan had a near death experience whilst trying to protect a rare parrot.
‘These people are very paranoid’ he tells me, ‘They thought I was with the paramilitary so they started shooting at me. My life was randomly saved by a passing friend who confirmed I was a park ranger. Only then did they stop’. I consider my expedition clothes and realise the perils of wearing camo in this country are significantly worse than a dressing down from the fashion police.
It’s a seven-hour drive along squiggly car advert mountain roads to our final destination, the soggy jungles of Choco - owner of the rare honour of being the wettest place on earth. Here, straddling the equator, the westernmost cordillera of the Andes slides down into the Pacific whose hot damp oceanic air dumps thirteen metres of rain on these steep mountainous slopes every year. The early explorers described it as a Turkish bath. It’s quite literally frog heaven.
I’ve never crossed a meteorological border before. But as we snake our way up the eastern side of the range, the neighbouring province is all sunshine and smiles. A pastoral fantasyland featuring adobe farmhouses draped in geraniums and farmers tending a patchwork of crops. It’s really rather idyllic. But as we cross over the crest of the range, we’re greeted by a wall of rain and two teenage soldiers brandishing submachine guns. Welcome to Choco, a forgotten land of steamy jungles and hot politics.
This is Colombia’s wild west. And that’s saying something. Cut off from the rest of the country by its crazy climate and corrugated terrain, it’s home to a smattering of cowboys, indians and the descendents of African slaves. It is also the scene of some of the country’s most violent standoffs between the FARC and Paramilitary, as they vie for a slice of the countries $13 billion cocaine industry. The lower altitudes are where much of the coca – the raw material for cocaine – is grown and processed, near the coast for easy transportation to neighbouring Panama and beyond. It’s not the sort of place to suddenly start snooping around, even for lost frogs.
The dirt road we are bumping along on – incredibly one of the three main arteries feeding the entire province – was until eighteen months ago controlled by the FARC, whose roadblock’s deterred all but the most dedicated traffic. But in the last few years the government has staged a massive crackdown on these left wing rebels, killing several of their key commanders and forcing them back to the furthest corners of the country. Now our progress is slowed by frequent friskings from pimply government soldiers who look too young to hold a machine gun. But their presence makes it finally safe to explore. Alonso thinks we may be the first biologists to visit this jungle in decades making it the perfect place to find out lost toad.
The search involves wading up streams, peering under decaying logs and riffling through leaf litter. ‘Watch out for snakes’ Alonso warns breezily. What kind I ask? Fer-de-Lance. Oh. Goody. Only the most deadly viper in Latin America. Its venom is one of those fancy ones that fries your brain and melts your flesh. A sort of serpentine Mike Tyson, the snake is huge and famously aggressive, if mercifully stupid. When chased by a Fer-de-Lance you’re advised to drop your backpack. The snake will then stop and attack that instead of you. A fine idea providing you aren't planning your escape in knee deep mud.
Our first day’s foraging brings no sign of the beaked toad but instead we uncover an Aladdin’s cave of amphibians; delicate glass frogs whose cling-film skin exposes their beating hearts, psychedelic sticky-fingered tree frogs and an undiscovered species of ancient toad that’s matt black with red eyes. The frog geeks are giddy with excitement. Me included.
‘I’ve never found so many species so fast. Let alone just a short walk from the road’ says Robin. ‘Frogs are a great indicator of a healthy ecosystem. The forest here is obviously in great shape’.
So it should be. The very same dangers that kept biologists out of this jungle have also prevented the rest of the world from plundering its riches. Conflict, it turns out, can be the conservationist’s most unlikely friend.
‘It’s the same story in Congo, Laos and Burma. Areas of prolonged civil unrest are home to some of the world’s most intact forest,’ Paul Salaman of the World Land Trust tells me. ‘It’s not PC, but landmines are probably the very best form of conservation there is. A landmine notice keeps everyone out'
Having a viscous mass murdering terrorist group with a penchant for kidnap hiding out in the forest is almost as effective as a liberal sprinkling of landmines. Alonso explains, ‘If the FARC occupy the forest then it’s forbidden to cut down trees or kill animals. Not for conservation reasons, but because they don’t like people removing their cover or wandering about with guns’
One herpetologist even went so far as to name a new species of toad, Atelopus farci, stating that ‘the species is dedicated to the FARC for its conservation, but not political, efforts’. Ten years later however, he was held captive by a rival group, whilst surveying for new species in their territory. Perhaps they were annoyed they didn’t have a toady mascot they could call their own. He was released safely but probably wishes he’d never started the name game. Now everyone’s going to want one.
Glass frog photo by Robin Moore
The FARC’s presence may inadvertently protect the forest they occupy, but their involvement in the drug trade means they’re unlikely to be sharing the podium with Al Gore anytime soon. The destruction of the rainforest to grow coca is public enemy number one for Colombia’s wildlife, destroying an estimated 3000sqkm of precious primary forest every year. To add insult to injury their favourite place to grow the stuff is in the National Parks. Cultivating on public land conveniently does away with any irksome finger pointing at landowners. Warriors they may be, but eco-warriors they’re not.
It’s hard to choose, but my favourite frog of the day is a splendid Harlequin poison dart frog, a threatened species found only in the lowlands of Colombia. Ironically the presence of the FARC shielded this animal from an increasing threat to frogs and a known threat to humans - kidnap.
The last few years have seen an explosion in a rather peculiar fashion for keeping frogs as pets. This in turn is fuelling a booming multi-million dollar illegal trade. Most popular are poison dart frogs who come in a kaleidoscope of colour combinations. These have evolved to ward off predators by warning of their toxicity but ironically have the opposite effect on fanatic frog-fanciers, who like to collect them like stamps. The rarer the better.
Robin tells me, ‘Many of these species inhabit very small ranges. After habitat destruction and disease, poaching is probably the biggest threat they face, enough to drive small populations to extinction.’
Proving there’s no such thing as intelligent design, one morph has inadvertently evolved a perfect red circle in the middle of its back. This makes it the target of Japanese collectors keen to possess a frog that sports a facsimile of their flag. Our dart frog is jet black with yellow spots, a never-seen-before morph. As such it could fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.
According to Alonso’s investigation the local Embera Indians, who once used these animals to poison their arrows, are at the bottom of the chain in this market and paid as little as one dollar a frog. The dons of the frog-smuggling world it turns out are the Germans whose desire to be the first at everything even extends to frog collecting. Their methods of achieving this are, in my opinion, reasonable grounds for WW3.
The local Embera women were captivating in their fancy dresses
Most are carried out in cargos of tropical fish, but small time smugglers are known to resort to kinkier methods; stuffing frogs into film canisters and clearing customs with them strapped to their thighs. Or even shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. Ouch. All of which makes you wonder how one would explain away a severe case of croaking. Let alone deal with an escapee poison dart frog, heading north.
Our Harlequin dart frog risks being snatched not just for its good looks but also its secret stash of drugs. Alonso’s most shocking discovery is a second, more organised ring of frog-nappers supplying the pharmaceutical industry.
The first frog we found was this male Andean Poison dart frog seen here carrying a tadpole on its back. They are dedicated parents and do not breed explosively like other species making them especially vulnerable to collection pressures. Photo by Robin Moore
Amphibian skin harbours a pharmacopoeia of chemicals that could provide cures for everything from cancer to AIDS. Our Harlequin poison dart frog for example is known to secrete a toxin that blocks neurotransmission and could play a role in treating Alzheimers. A new morph like this could contain the chemical blueprints for dozens of other medicines.
One of the problems faced by the pharma companies is that the frogs don’t synthesise the poisons themselves. Like little bio-prospectors they sequester them from their diet of ants, termites and beetles. So captive bred animals are no use to scientists, whose research can burn through hundreds of frogs. To isolate epibatadine, a painkiller two hundred times stronger than morphine, took over seven hundred Phantasmal dart frogs. It’s perhaps no coincidence this species is listed as endangered.
It strikes me that this is a perfect example of the value of biodiversity. This invisible interconnectedness puts a price tag on preserving the entire web of life. Even the termites.
It wasn't all frogs - this chrysalis was rather beautiful too
Quevedo is keen to buy up private land from farmers and establish reserves complete with guards, to protect Colombia’s biological treasure trove. He has created eighteen so far in other parts of the country and is looking for funding to start protecting the Choco. But it is a race against the clock. The streams that we are surveying for natural riches are also being eyed up by gold prospectors. Experts are predicting that Colombia could be the scene of the last great global gold rush, attracting 4.5 billion worth if investment from international mining companies over the next 10 years. Now that Choco is becoming safer, its vast deposits of alluvial gold can finally be exploited annihilating our amphibian El Dorado in the process.
‘These are not romantic gold miners going in with pans. To get the alluvial deposits requires huge machinery. Sucking up everything and dumping tons of mercury into the water’ Paul tells me, ‘Conservationists have to move faster than we’ve ever moved before or the whole area will be razed in ten to fifteen years’
It’s a twisted world in which the greatest threat to biodiversity is peace. But it’s perhaps even more perverse when you consider the economics of the situation.
The cost of conserving a slice of this pristine forest, containing what is perhaps the greatest concentration of unique biodiversity on the planet, is a laughable one hundred pounds a hectare. The real value of this land in terms of its role in purifying the water, recycling carbon and as a potential source of bio-chemicals is something we’re just beginning to quantify.
But with an international drug war being fought on its doorstep, the Colombian government is focussed on restoring peace and attracting foreign investment and not conservation. This means that Quevedo has to look to international NGOs for support. There are a handful of international charities dedicated to saving frogs like Amphibian Ark but according to Robin Moore, ‘getting donors for amphibian conservation is harder than finding the Mesopotamian beaked toad’.
Which is saying something. At the end of our three-day toad hunt our primary quarry has sadly eluded us. I like to think he was sitting in a tree looking down and laughing at us. Not missing presumed dead. Robin’s consolation is the discovery of a different species of beaked toad, which he believes may be new to science. This joins a handful of potential new species including one found by me.
This little film captures the moment I caught my first frog of the trip which just happened to be a potential new species
My herpetological holy grail is a little rocket frog. These tend to your classic little brown jobs: dowdy and unassuming. But my one has bright scarlet legs like he’s wearing red drainpipes. What a dude. It’s unlikely he’ll be called the Lucy frog though. Auctioning off scientific names has become a valuable money-spinner for conservation organisations. Which is fine by me. I’ll happily trade my amphibian immortality to ensure he’s still here in a hundred years time.
To support Pro Aves mission to conserve the Choco you can find out more about them and donate here
This blog post first appeared as a feature in the Saturday Telegraph magazine and can be read online here