Lethal and lovely: an interview with the founders of the golden poison frog reserve

If you ever would be so happy to stumble upon a golden poison frog in the wild, chances are you are more enticed by this creature than frightened of it. With a Latin name like ‘terribilis’, referring to how terrifying this creature is, you might expect to see a more ferocious animal. However it definitely has earned its Latin name considering it is the most poisonous animal on earth. Therefore, it would be very wise not to touch it; the skin of one frog contains enough poison to kill 20 grown men. Its toxicity has proved to be a very useful feature for indigenous people living in the western part of Colombia: these people load their blowguns with darts that are made toxic by simply rubbing them against the backs of living golden poison frogs. This custom is very neatly described by Myers et al. in a lengthy article announcing the discovery of the species in 1978.   Why it is so toxic and where it derives its toxicity from is still up for debate: long it was believed that ants in their diet were the primary source of the alkaloids that make up the poison, however the source now most likely is a small beetle that is part of the species’ diet. I will leave the debate with this and will focus now on conservation efforts, because unfortunately, even being the most poisonous animal on earth has not safeguarded this species from humanity’s march up on the Olympus. For it is our species that is continuously extending its sphere of influence over the earth and thereby leaving less and less habitat for other species to occupy. With its global population declining the golden poison frog, like many other amphibians, seems to have a grim future ahead.

The golden poison frog. Credit: © Fundación ProAves - www.proaves.org

The golden poison frog.
Credit: © Fundación ProAves – www.proaves.org


Luckily there are people who try their best to conserve this species; in May of last year Fundacion ProAves founded a reserve, with the help of World Land Trust, American Bird Conservancy, Global Wildlife Conservation and Conservation International, in the Choco rainforest of Colombia, named the Rana terribilis reserve, that is comprised of about 50 hectares of primary rainforest. The reserve is situated near the bank of the Timbiqui River, a short distance from the municipality of Timbiqui within the Cauca Department. This is the first effort to save this species, because until then the golden poison frog was completely unprotected. Because I was interested to know more about this species and the reserve I contacted Fundacio ProAves and had the pleasure of asking some questions to Luis Gabriel Mosquera, subdirector of the natural reserves in this area and in charge of the Rana terribilis reserve. He provide me with some  answers about the reserve and the state of the species.


View of the Rio Timbiqui and the Rana terribilis reserveCredit: © Fundación ProAves - www.proaves.org

View of the Rio Timbiqui and the Rana terribilis reserve
Credit: © Fundación ProAves – www.proaves.org


How many individuals are estimated to live within the Reserve?

“At this moment it is very hard to estimate the number of individuals of this species within the reserve, because we haven’t been able to carry out a proper investigation that would give us the necessary data. Within our team we have people at the moment that are specialized in collecting these data. Therefore, we hope to obtain better estimates in the near future.”

Is the Reserve large enough to sustain a healthy population?

“No, with only 47 hectares, the reserve is probably too small to ensure a healthy population and save the species, but fortunately we are planning to acquire a larger area. And as well, we count on the people of the surrounding communities to become more involved in conservation efforts and obtain a better knowledge of the species, thereby promoting the conservation of the frog.”

How do you manage the Reserve? Any specific management you use to promote the survival of the frogs?

“At this moment we are developing research activities that are aimed at increasing knowledge on the life history of the frog. Also, we have other activities planned that should help us with conservation of the species, some examples are:

-Developing educational activities including trips into the field with youngsters from the region.

-Getting the word out to the  surrounding communities about the location of the reserve and the activities that are being implemented there, to make sure that the reserve is respected as a protected area within the surrounding area. In this way we hope to bind people to our conservation efforts for the golden poison frog and other species in the area.

-We are trying to connect with other institutions that could be helpful for the project, like the mayor of Timbiqui (to create forested zones) , community leaders (to create conservation zones within their areas), the Colombian institute for rural development (INCODER), etc…”

What are the greatest threats to this species?

“Among the greatest threats that are imposed on this species are the human pressure on its environment and  activities like deforestation that are reducing the area of habitat for this species. That’s why it might become hard to find this species in its natural habitat in the future.” (in addition to this, the press release of the World Land Trust mentions that “improved security in the region has increased deforestation, illegal gold-mining, illicit coca cultivation and logging”, MB)

What is for you the most fascinating thing about this species?

“What I find fascinating is that evolution has enabled such a small and apparently harmless creature to become one of the most poisonous vertebrates in the world. ”

The golden poison frog.Credit: © Fundación ProAves - www.proaves.org

The golden poison frog.
Credit: © Fundación ProAves – www.proaves.org

Why is it so important to preserve this species in the reserve?

“This species is known as the most poisonous vertebrate on earth. Moreover, this species is endemic to the coast of Colombia and Panama, which indicates that these frogs cannot be found in any other part of the world. Unfortunately the golden poison frog is an endangered species and therefore conservation is of the highest priority. ”

As you have been able to read above the people managing the Rana terribilis reserve are trying to spread the conservation message throughout the community and trying to involve as many institutions as they can. I think it is very wise of them to look for that support in the surrounding communities and the government. Because as well as it is us people that are putting an increasing pressure on the habitat of the golden poison frog, it is us as well that can make a valuable contribution to the survival of the species. This is my small contribution towards that goal and I want to ask you to make your own contribution by spreading the word and maybe making a financial contribution. To do the latter, go to the website of Fundacion Proaves or the World Land Trust

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