COMMENTARY: Fight for the Frogs

Getting Active for Amphibians Before It's Too Late

The pet trade is a major contributor to the decline of brightly colored tropical frog species.

The first annual Save the Frogs Day is headed our way April 28th. Below, Dr. Kerry Kriger, Founder and Executive Director of SAVETHEFROGS!, explains why we need to stop taking those cute amphibians for granted.

What inspired you to found the SAVE THE FROGS! organization?

After I completed my Ph.D. research on amphibian diseases, I realized that amphibian conservation efforts were failing. The species extinction rate was a high as ever and showed no signs of abating. The recommendations that scientists were offering politicians and businesses were not being implemented. Our society as a whole was completely unaware of the amphibian extinction crisis. While there were other nonprofits organizations that ran amphibian projects, there were no other organizations dedicated exclusively to amphibian conservation.

What is causing the decline of frogs and other amphibian populations?

In the mountainous areas of the world, a chytrid fungus is responsible for the extinction of perhaps a hundred frog species. Habitat destruction is the main cause of amphibian populations in lowland areas. We chop trees to put up malls and drain wetlands to lay down parking lots. Pollution from our cars, factories and farms drain to rivers and lakes and is absorbed into amphibians" permeable skin. Pesticides sprayed onto cotton and food crops sterilize male frogs and decrease their immune responses.

Climate change is already a huge problem for frogs, especially high-altitude frogs that live on mountaintops. When the climate warms they are forced to shift their altitudinal range up the mountain, but since they are already at the top they have nowhere to go. In Yellowstone National Park, the world's oldest protected area, there are now four times more permanently dry ponds than there were just 16 years ago. To make matters worse, the ponds that do remain harbor less amphibian species and fewer individuals.

Tadpoles keep waterways clean by feeding on algae.

In many countries there are no regulations regarding taking amphibians from the wild. The pet trade in western countries is a major contributor to the decline of brightly colored tropical species. The lack of alternative food sources in many developing countries exerts a large amount of pressure on local amphibians, which can be easy prey for people in search of an inexpensive meal.

What important roles do frogs and amphibians play in the environment? Why is it essential that we preserve their populations?

Tadpoles keep waterways clean by feeding on algae, and we depend on this water every time we turn on the tap. Adult frogs eat large quantities of insects, including disease vectors that can transmit fatal illnesses to humans. Frogs serve as an important food source to dragonflies, fish, snakes, birds and monkeys, and thus the disappearance of amphibians would have negative effects that would cascade through the ecosystem. Frogs are used in medical research and approximately 10% of the Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine have resulted from investigations that used frogs. When a frog species disappears, so does any promise it holds for improving human medicine.

Why do you think the amphibian extinction crisis has had such little notice from conservationists and scientists?

The scientific community is actually directing a significant amount of effort to the problem, with ecologists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, climatologists and breeders all joining in. The general public, however, is for the large part unaware of the problem. I estimate that less than 2% of the world's population is aware that amphibians are disappearing. I think this is for a few reasons:
(1) There have not been many groups working to raise awareness of the problem.
(2) Frogs come out on wet rainy nights, and those are times when people do their best to stay inside, so most people rarely see frogs.
(3) Many extinctions occur in remote areas of developing countries, where there are few scientists and little interest from locals, most of whom have to deal with other urgent issues such as feeding themselves.
Most importantly though, the environmental education curriculum in public schools is severely lacking and needs to receive far more focus from teachers and funding from school boards.

What is your organization's mission and how does it plan to educate people on this issue?

SAVE THE FROGS! aims to protect amphibian populations through scientific research, policy-making, legal defense and through the acquisition of critical habitat; by providing amphibian conservation grants to students, post-doctorate fellows and academics; and by educating the public about amphibians and amphibian declines, so that we have a more frog-friendly society.

We educate people via our website (www.savethefrogs.com), by distributing educational frog posters, flyers and other materials to schools, museums, zoos, libraries and politicians and by presenting live lectures on amphibians. I will be lecturing nationwide this spring, and I am coordinating this year's Save the Frogs Day events (April 28th), in which we have enlisted over 40 scientists in ten countries to give free lectures on the amphibian extinction crisis. Next year we plan to have a large benefit concert to raise awareness and funds for our amphibian conservation projects.

What can we all do to help prevent the further decline of amphibian populations?

We first need to think about our day-to-day actions and how they affect the planet. On our How to Help page we list many ways that people can reduce their impact on the environment. These include not using pesticides, not eating frog legs, driving slower on rainy nights, turning off the tap, not buying bottled water, not purchasing amphibians for pets, using rechargeable batteries and voting for politicians with strong environmental records.

What has been the most rewarding part of your job as founder of SAVETHE FROGS! so far?

I enjoy hearing from kids who are excited about amphibians and getting involved in conservation for the first time in their lives. They are the activists of tomorrow.

JENNIFER SANTISI is a writer and editor at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.