Getting eaten alive by lost frogs

We should be lucky to have people care so much for amphibians as Robin Moore does. He is the author of a book called  “In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians” that recounts the epic quest of many scientists, Robin Moore being one of them, focused on rediscovery of a 100 lost amphibians. It has received a lot of media attention, not unlike Paul Rosolie, who starred in the Discovery special “Eaten Alive”. Both projects aimed at raising awareness for the greater good, conservation of our natural world, by using unorthodox methods. In an interview with Mongabay Robin Moore elaborates on the book, the campaign and how we can get the general public interested in saving amphibians.

Cover of the book "In search of lost frogs"

Cover of the book “In search of lost frogs”

But before I get to the interview with Robin Moore, first I want to briefly touch upon the documentary that Discovery made with Paul Rosolie. In this documentary we can see the Amazon conservationist Rosolie entering the western Amazon to find an anaconda that is large and hungry enough to have a go at him and getting himself filmed while being strangled by the gigantic snake. Unlike “In Search of Lost Frogs” it spurred a lot of controversy, because people felt he was abusing the snake, violating the creature’s rights and many feared or assumed he killed the snake. PETA launched a petition in which they demanded the show wouldn’t be aired and Rosolie received more than one death threat. And unfortunately the conservation message that Rosolie wanted so badly to convey, got snowed under.

In an informative essay that Rosolie wrote for he reveals what he originally set out to do: showing the world the illegal and destructive gold mining in the Peruvian rainforest, teaching how anacondas are affected by this activity and showing how important these snakes are for the ecosystem. But he was surprised by the final result that Discovery aired, a tv show that was solely focused on the ‘spectacular’ footage of him being ‘eaten alive’. There was hardly any mentioning of the illegal gold mining or why we should care about preserving the anaconda’s habitat. Because in the end that was what he wanted; to get more mainstream attention for this good cause.

He explains this as follows: “[…]the idea seemed just crazy enough to actually get mainstream attention in a society where I see eyes glaze over whenever the loss of biodiversity and human-life-supporting ecosystems comes up. I felt that conservation had long played it safe, and, as such, had lost the interest of the majority of the public. Instead of exciting people and getting them to see why conservationists care so much, we repeat the same depressing problems without coupling that with the true wonder of nature. Either that, or we focus on the wonder, without pointing out the threats. One way or another, we are missing the mainstream public”. Well, he received a lot of media attention, but the general conservation message did not really take root. Unfortunately people are far more interested in quickly taking a moral stand against this supposedly abuse of the snake than to examine their own role in the bigger picture of Amazon conservation. We are all, directly or indirectly, responsible for cutting down the rainforest. But we refuse to take a long and hard look at ourselves and see what we can change in our daily lives to save the forest for our children and grandchildren. If only we would protest this loud against food producers who obtain their palm oil from plantations that have destroyed the forest and its wildlife. 

The Cuchumatan golden toad (Incilius aurarius) from the Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala, found during a search for lost salamanders. This species was only discovered as recently as 2012. It is so new to science that it has yet to be evaluated by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Robin Moore.

The Cuchumatan golden toad (Incilius aurarius) from the Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala, found during a search for lost salamanders. This species was only discovered as recently as 2012. It is so new to science that it has yet to be evaluated by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Robin Moore.

But what sticks with me most when I read Rosolie’s words, is that the conservation community has to find a way to reach mainstream public with a message that stresses the wonders of nature but also the enormous threats that nature is experiencing. With almost half of biodiversity hanging by a thread we need those types of messages dearly. Especially the amphibians, considered to be the most threatened taxonomic group. Robin Moore has done a wonderful job of showing how amazing amphibians are, while at the same time letting people know just how endangered frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians are. The search for lost frogs started in 2010 and targeted a 100 species that had not been seen for several decades or even more than a century. With the help of scientists around the globe Moore and colleagues were able to go to 21 countries in the hope to rediscover these lost species.

Robin Moore had an interview some months ago with Mongabay in which he has some very interesting things to say about why amphibians are worth saving and how the conservation community should go about in trying to interest the general public for this good cause. Now follows an excerpt from the interview (be sure to check out the original article as there is more):

“While the global campaign did not re-discover most of the 100 amphibians it targeted, it did indeed find frogs that had been lost for decades—and some even over a century. Moreover, the search uncovered several new species of amphibians and resulted in greater knowledge for many threatened amphibians. But, perhaps most importantly, the campaign brought the message of the global amphibian crisis into the living rooms and offices of millions of people around the world. Unlike many conservation campaigns, the Search for Lost Frogs was widely covered by the mainstream media. And instead of just delivering a message of despair, it also built on the excitement of exploration and the great beauty of these often-overlooked creatures.

Mongabay: There’s lots of numbers and statistics regarding the current extinction crisis hitting amphibians, but what are we really witnessing? How bad is it? 

Robin Moore: It is bad. Amphibians are survivors—they have been around for more than 300 million years and have made it through five mass extinctions. Since the dinosaurs disappeared, the Earth has been losing species at a rate of about one species in a million every year—to put that into context for amphibians, that equates to one amphibian species every 143 years. In the past few decades the rate of extinction has sped up to around 1,000 times that. Over 3,000 species of amphibians are currently threatened with extinction according to the IUCN, and according to a recent report by WWF, more than three quarters of populations of freshwater species have declined over the past 40 years. No matter how you spin this, it is not good

Mongabay: Will you tell us how you got the idea for a Search for Lost Frogs? And what’s the definition of a lost species?

Robin Moore: I had been at Conservation International (CI) for close to five years trying to communicate the plight of amphibians to the general public. People generally weren’t that interested, and I quickly realized that amphibians had an image problem. Rather than continue to hit people over the head with alarming statistics I decided to try a different approach to engage people. I brainstormed with colleagues and we came up with the idea of putting out a call for “lost” amphibians. I ran with the idea. I started to compile a list of lost species, tapping into our network 700 amphibian experts around the world for input. There was no strict definition of what constituted a lost species so we had to come up with one. We decided that the species could not have been seen within the last 10 years (at least two generations for most amphibians), and it had to be nominated by an expert. The list quickly grew to 100 species, at which point I ran the idea past the communications team at CI, and they loved it. We produced a poster of the Top Ten Most Wanted, and that really seemed to excite people. To make things more interesting, we raised support for 126 researchers to search for lost species in 21 countries. We launched the campaign on August 9, 2010, and the media immediately picked it up. It just seemed to resonate.

A glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium ruedai, peers through a leaf in the Choco of Colombia as we search for lost frogs. This species is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Robin Moore.

A glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium ruedai, peers through a leaf in the Choco of Colombia as we search for lost frogs. This species is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Robin Moore.

Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest success and failures of the global search? 

Robin Moore: Most research teams failed to find their lost species—but this is what we expected. These animals are lost for a reason—so it was something of a somber reminder of the plight of amphibians worldwide. A few rediscoveries stood out as being particularly remarkable. The Hula painted frog in Israel, for example. This frog vanished in the 1950s after its wetland home was drained like a giant bathtub. After forty years without trace, the frog was the first amphibian to be listed as Extinct by the IUCN, and it became a symbol of extinction in Israel. In response to public pressure, the wetland was partially re-flooded in the 1990s, and while some of the wildlife came back the Hula painted frog remained a poignant reminder of what had been lost. The frog was one of our Top Ten Most Wanted species globally. And remarkably, a year after the Search for Lost Frogs launched, a reserve warden stumbled upon a live Hula painted frog – 55 years after it was last seen. It was a reminder that nature can surprise given a chance. 

I think the biggest success of the campaign was that it succeeded in grabbing the attention of a global media, and in doing so it gave us a platform to deliver more nuanced messages about the plight of amphibians.

Mongabay: While the rediscovery of lost species seems to capture the most attention, it seems to me that what happens next is most important. What do we need to do to make sure these species don’t vanish again—and this time for good?

Robin Moore: Firstly, we need to understand why some individuals and species survived while others around them disappeared—this could help us prevent them from disappearing again. Most rediscovered species are subject to active research and monitoring programs by local universities. Secondly, we need to assess the most pressing threats to the survival and recovery of these species. This is often habitat loss—which remains the primary threat to the long-term survival of most species worldwide. In order to address this threat the Amphibian Survival Alliance is working with partners around the world to identify and protect the most critical habitats. So, we do have a global funding mechanism for supporting the protection of amphibians, but we need to scale this up to really meet the challenge.

Mongabay: How can we get people to really care about frogs?

Robin Moore: I think our best bet, with most people, is to appeal to that childlike curiosity with the world that is deep within every one of us. Many of us spent our childhoods fishing for frogs and raising tadpoles, and the realization that our children and our children’s children may not have that same opportunity is deeply saddening. The thought of my son one day asking what we were doing while the frogs were vanishing around us sends a chill up my spine. When we talk of the value of species we tend to talk in terms of their economic or ecological value—to appeal to the mind and not the heart. But it is the emotional and intellectual value of frogs and salamanders that I think is more important on a personal level to most people. We need to be telling more stories that remind people how much amphibians enrich our shared world, and we need to try to put the disappearance of frogs and salamanders into the context of people’s every day lives. 

One of the biggest threats to frogs is the widely held misconception that we are somehow above, or superior to nature, rather than a part of it. The only way to really change this mindset is through personal experience. It is with this in mind that I co-founded a program in Haiti called Frame of Mind that empowers youth to connect with their natural and cultural worlds through photography and visual storytelling. The camera gives the young Haitians a means of capturing and sharing the beauty around them, and of telling visual stories that help them to redefine their relationship with nature. It has been a transformative experience for both the youth and for me. I think that every child should be given the opportunity to have their eyes opened by the wonder of nature. 

Gliding treefrog (Agalychnis spurrelli) with mushrooms, found on the last night in the Osa Peninsula. This species is Least Concern. Photo by: Robin Moore.

Gliding treefrog (Agalychnis spurrelli) with mushrooms, found on the last night in the Osa Peninsula. This species is Least Concern. Photo by: Robin Moore.

Mongabay: Given how many species have very likely been lost, what gives you hope when looking at the state of amphibians today? 

Robin Moore: We have identified 250 amphibian species that have not been seen in decades, and the IUCN estimates that more than half of these are likely to be Extinct. And this does not include ghost species—those that have gone extinct before they have even been named. Overall, it is quite a bleak landscape. What gives me hope are those frogs that have made an incredible reappearance years or decades after they vanished. These are a reminder that nature can continue to surprise us. As long as there are still frogs, there is hope. George Monbiot wrote that an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair—and I think this is an important reminder as we try to engage people in conservation. We need grounded hope to remind us what we are fighting for. 

Mongabay: What can people do to help the world’s amphibians? 

Robin Moore: The Amphibian Survival Alliance has recently formed as a platform to engage people and organizations in addressing the most pressing threats to amphibians around the world. I would strongly advise hopping onto to see what people are doing around the world, and to find out how you can become involved. People can support the work of groups around the world, organize fundraisers, volunteer for a local group monitoring amphibians, or give a talk at a local school. There are many creative ways to join the conversation and make a difference. 

Mongabay: Any plans for a sequel to the Search for Lost Frogs? 

Robin Moore: Having seen the incredible response to the Search for Lost Frogs, I am definitely inspired to build on this. What that sequel will look like, I can’t really say just yet! 

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