Thirty Years After the Last Golden Toad Sighting, What Have We Learned?

The story of Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest is like so many other protected areas. First, biologists noticed incredible species in an ecosystem. In Monteverde’s case, the forest contained tropical birds like the Resplendent Quetzal and amphibians like the Golden Toad. But then, like so many other protected areas, they also documented threats — in this case, habitat degradation from squatters and hunting. So, at last, they worked to protect the forest.

And thus, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve came into existence in 1973. Soon after opening, it hosted tourists and researchers from around the world. The reserve grew over time, offering more and more protection for its species.

All went according to plan.

Until it didn’t.

The Golden Toad was endemic to the Monteverde Cloud Forest — found nowhere else on Earth. The species was a brilliant burnt-yellow, prone to easy spotting in its thick, green rainforest home. That’s if you were around during the short time the toad was above ground. The species spent most of its life underground, emerging only for a few days at the end of the dry season to mate.

Spotting the frogs must have been an incredible sight to behold. In 1987, between April and July, researchers noted nearly 1,500 adult toads scattered between a few shallow pools around the forest. Imagine — these bright yellow toads, seen once a year, all converging on puddles to breed before retreating underground.

The Golden Toad.

But in 1988, scientists found only one toad, a male, in the same area. They documented nine more a couple of miles away.

And then in 1989, they spotted one male toad — and nothing else.

In 1990, they found none.

And so it’s been ever since. Finally, in 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the Golden Toad “Extinct.”

From 1,500 to 10 in one year. From 10 to one in the next. That is, respectively, a 99% drop and a 90% drop. Of course, going from one to zero is a 100% decline.

What lead to this precipitative drop?

This question leads into a near thirty-year debate on why, exactly, the Golden Toad went extinct. A paper in 1992 (when researchers still hoped some toads were hiding somewhere) noted that in 1988-1990, rainfall started later after the dry season. What’s more, the rain came down heavier at first, instead of slow to start. The pools used for frog breeding filled faster, which may have removed the window of shallowness needed to breed.

They speculated that small changes in climate might lead to catastrophic collapse. With the scientific community now examining the effect of global warming on ecosystems, this was significant.

But around the same time, amphibian researchers discovered another, once-hidden threat. Researchers around the world found a striking similarity in precipitous amphibian population declines. It seemed amphibians were on the verge of collapse everywhere — and no one could figure out why.

In 1993, researchers first found a possible culprit. Fungi in the genus Batrachochytrium, also known as “chytrid” was causing a fatal disease called chytridiomycosis. After decades of research, we know that at least two chytrid fungal species can lead to the disease. Researchers today cite the chytrid fungus as the likely cause of extinction for the Golden Toad. And, I should add, dozens of other amphibian species. The crisis is still occurring. Amphibians are dying everywhere, with species clinging to existence. It’s the most deadly threat to biodiversity you’ve never heard of.

Another victim of the chytrid fungus, from Panama. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

But we’re still uncertain of where chytrid came from, why/how it becomes fatal or how it spreads. Some scientists argue that climate change might alter the fungus’s growth pattern, leading to disease. Others note that amphibians have a chytrid-fighting bacteria on their skin. But something in the environment — like chemical pesticides or other pollution — might impede their immune response to the fungus. The spores can spread through soil and water, but they might also spread through rain.

We also don’t know how to stop it.

This threat doesn’t bode well for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. In fact, this type of threat doesn’t bode well for habitat protection at all. Climate change, fungal diseases — these won’t stop at a fence. A forest guard can’t stop these threats from passing into a reserve. Why even protect land if indiscriminate threats can still kill wildlife?

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Photo by Florent MECHAIN/TravelMag.com

But while protected areas aren’t catch-alls, they’re not useless. As the world’s ecosystems face a multifaceted barrage of threats, we need to keep habitats as intact as possible. Much like ecosystems, threats to ecosystems are interconnected.

Climate change can reduce rainfall — leading to wildlife migration outside protected areas in search of water. But protecting more land increases the likelihood they can find drinking water within a reserve.

Poaching targets individual animals for meat. But if habitat degradation causes a decrease in pollinator species, crops may not offer enough food for a family anymore. They might poach to survive.

Habitat is the basis of ecological survival. Land conservation is the first step for any species facing extinction because any conservation program is useless without habitat. Intact ecosystems are their own support systems — the more of an ecosystem remains intact, the more resilience it has against threats. Habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction worldwide, so habitat protection is one of the leading necessities of preventing extinction. Fences may not stop killer fungi, but they do keep species happy otherwise — making them stronger in the face of killer fungi. We’ve also rediscovered species once thought to be extinct in protected areas — like the “golden wonder” salamander.

In the thirty years since the last Golden Toad sighting, scientists and amateur herpetologists alike have searched in vain for the little, colorful amphibian. They’ve found zilch, nada, squat — every time. Over time, the Golden Toad has become a symbol of extinction and the amphibian biodiversity crisis. This week, many herpetologists mourn one of the world’s most-analyzed and rued amphibian losses.

Thirty years later, amphibians are still on the edge of oblivion. But in those thirty years, we’ve discovered chytridiomycosis. We’ve developed more plans to build ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change. We’ve expanded protected areas, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Rainforest Trust actually helped secure an additional 100 acres for the reserve in 1993.

The work we’ve done to prevent other frogs from the Golden Toad’s fate hasn’t been enough. But it’s been a start. And you can’t get anywhere without that.

Voices from the Rainforest: Esther Kagoya, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Educating Communities in Conservation

Esther Kagoya is a Ugandan conservationist with over five years of experience in natural resources and freshwater fisheries research. She holds a Masters in Fisheries Science from Pukyong National University in South Korea. Currently, Esther is working as a research scientist for Uganda’s National Fisheries Resource Research Institute (NaFIRRI) in fish stock assessment, capture fisheries management and biodiversity conservation.

She worked as a field officer during the Safeguarding a Global Freshwater Fish Hotspot project. A collaboration between Rainforest Trust, NaFIRRI and local stakeholders that safeguarded 10,448 acres on Lake Nyaguo with two fishing exclusion zones and a wetland buffer around the whole lake.

Esther (Bottom Right) with other Rainforest Trust Conservation Fellows and community members.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

A combination of my education and field experience have inspired me to become a conservationist. I chose to earn my bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Economics because of my passion for natural resource related issues. I am primarily interested in sustainable management and conservation. I conducted research for my final BSc project on the effects of fisheries policies on fish production and conservation.

In the final months of school, I worked as an intern with NaFIRRI. During this time I was able to further my knowledge of fisheries conservation and obtain the necessary hands-on skills for field work. Eventually, I became a research assistant for NaFIRRI where I work on biodiversity conservation programs.

 

“The program provides easy access to conservation education and funding opportunities. Plus, reading about the successful protection projects conducted by other Fellows on the Rainforest Trust website inspire me and make me proud to be a part of the Conservation Fellows.”

 

Tell us about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist?

Being a young conservationist, I am always involved and interested in managing natural resources for the betterment of the future. During my work on the Lake Nyaguo project, I truly felt that I made a difference in the community. Before Rainforest Trust’s involvement in the project, the site was characterized by cultivated and cleared catchment and vegetation, use of illegal fishing gears and methods, low catch rates and declining fish stocks. I was able to get involved in several parts of the project. I worked with the research and project teams to identify several drivers of resource and species degradation. I also had the opportunity to communicate directly with resource stakeholders through community consultative meetings.

After the project’s inception, the stakeholders and communities are now more aware of the benefits of conservation through change in resource use behavior.  This gave them strength to sensitize other community members who were still using illegal fishing gears. The majority surrendered their destructive fishing gears and have transformed their use of destructive resource into practicing healthier ones. In addition, the project in collaboration with the local government enforced the wetland rules and regulations

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

The main challenge I am currently facing is the lack of political interest in conservation. While riparian communities are willing to abide by the best practices of fishing using the stipulated laws, regulations and policies, politicians are communicating contrary messaging by encouraging people to utilize natural resources at their will. The convoluted messaging has made it difficult for resource use communities, specifically fishermen, who try to abide by the positive conservation practices. They are often misled by their politicians to use the equipment and methods that have a harmful effect.

Poverty among resource users is another challenge. Communities always look for short term gains without being mindful of the long term issues. This is mainly attributed to the high poverty levels in these communities and luck of alternative sources of livelihoods.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Conservation is a process that involves change in the mindset of resource users and other key stakeholders of the resource in question. However, this can be arduous because people are more interested in short-term resources and project gains like increasing resource productivity rather than the long-term gains of conservation.   

Engaging communities in behavior change communication for long-term sustainability is quite challenging given that their mindset is fixed on short term gains. However, I believe that this is a gradual process that requires patience and in-depth understanding of the stakeholders and their interests. It is only a matter of time.

Header image: The Lake Nyaguo project site. Photo by Isabirye Aggrey.

Voices from the Rainforest: Eugène Mibog Diyouke, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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From Economist to Conservationist

Eugène Mibog Diyouke works as the program manager for Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society (CWCS) based in Mouanko, Cameroon. He has spent the majority of his conservation career in the field conducting research and educating local communities about the importance of sustainability. Eugène involved with the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve, a key conservation site in Central Africa that safeguards mangrove forests, freshwater and marine habitats that are critical to the overall sustainability of the coastal land and seascape.

Eugène’s position allows him to work in several capacities within CWCS, including performing rural outreach, establishing and monitoring aquatic forest sample plots and mangrove nurseries, and GIS (Geographic Information System) database management.

Eugène performing fieldwork. Photo by Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

I started my career as an economist. I joined CWCS in 2001 as a socioeconomic assistant, working as a rural development agent. During my studies in the field, I faced many challenges connecting the socioeconomic development of local people to conservation of natural resources. I began working with my biologist and forester colleagues to know more about fauna and flora and the best ways to preserve them. I noticed that it was impossible ignore the connection between the sustainability of the environment as a whole and the well-being of local populations. One of the largest challenges I have faced is working with people who were not yet educated on the sustainable utilization of natural resources. It was also difficult to gain the attention of the the local government because they were primarily focused on the prevention of illegal acts. When I started to face is these challenges is when I realized I wanted to become a conversationalist.

“Conservation is important because it helps to keep the global environments and their biodiversity in a good state in terms of quality and quantity and it allows ecological equilibrium and ecosystem services for today and for future generations.”

 

Tell us about a conservation success in your work.

I participated in all the steps of gazettement (change of status) of the Douala-Edea Wildlife Reserve into a National Park that lead to the success of the project. It was a difficult process because the local populations did not understand the importance of the project. We had to go through several community meetings in order to find a common understanding and reach an agreement. Another time, I felt that I made a difference as a conservationist when I taught the local population to understand the importance of mangrove restoration and gained their participation in planting activities in 2008.

 

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your work.

The slow adoption of improved smoke ovens for fish and other fishery products by the riverine population of mangrove areas. The new ovens, compared to the traditional ones that local communities use, consume less fuel wood and save more energy. The process has been delayed due to lack of volunteer support that is necessary to construct the ovens and the local population having difficulty accepting the integration process. The hardest part of my job is sensitization, to bring people to change behaviors and adapt to a more sustainable lifestyle.

“What makes me proud to be a Fellow is that my experience as a conservationist will be shared with others.”

 

Header image: Eugène (left) discussing fieldwork plans with colleague. Photo by Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society.

Use Technology to Think Like a Tiny Primate

Conservation and animal rights advocates have always anthropomorphized nonhuman animals to inspire empathy. And for good reason: it’s hard to look into the eyes of a sad pup while Sarah McLachlan sings and not feel a kinship with the creature.

But those clips always seemed shallow, at least for conservation science. As conservationists, we preach the gospel of admiring wildlife for their own sake — not through an anthropocentric lens. That’s why some of us like March of the Penguins more than Happy Feet. For that matter, that’s why some of us like Frozen Planet more than March of the Penguins.

Anthropomorphism is — sometimes — gimmicky. But it works so well to inspire the public. Listen, I’d care about the plight of the Axolotl no matter what it looked like. But looking like a smiling salamander with face wings helps.

An Axolotl, or, a smiling face-winged salamander. Photo via Pixabay.

There has to be a way to inspire commonality with wildlife without resorting to imposing a human perspective on their life history. We need to immerse ourselves in a species’ reality without the pretense of our physiology. I mean this virtually. We need to immerse ourselves in their reality, virtually.

You know… like a virtual reality.

Students at Dartmouth University came up with this exact thing. A team of software designers and evolutionary biologists developed a virtual reality program mimicking the point of view of a tarsier.

Tarsiers are small, nocturnal primates native to Southeast Asia. As an adaptation for moving through the dense rainforest at night, they have massive eyes to see in the dark. And I mean massive eyes.

Oh, hello. A Philippine Tarsier, native to the Philippines. Photo by Klaus Stiefel.

All the better to see you with, indeed.

The paper summarizing this program, published in Evolution: Education and Outreach, mentions that if humans had the same eye-to-brain size ratio, our eyes would be the size of grapefruits.

Tarsiers are also unique because they don’t have the standard ocular physiology of nocturnal mammals. Most nocturnal mammals have a light-reflecting tissue layer which creates a better sense of vision in low-light. But tarsiers don’t have that layer, hence the far-larger-than-average peepers that let in more light.

The program allows users to move through different landscapes such as “Matrix,” “Labyrinth” and “Bornean Rainforest” with a tarsier’s unique, nighttime-ready eyesight. The program also features the ability to switch between human and tarsier eyesight in each virtual environment. The paper’s authors describe the nighttime rainforest environment as “a dark, maze-like space that is practically opaque under human visual conditions.” But, they add that the rainforest is “navigable as a tarsier, demonstrating the advantages of tarsier visual sensitivity.

Some of that dense Bornean rainforest the tarsiers must navigate at night. Photo by Rainforest Trust.

The developers set out to create the virtual reality program as a tool for students to engage with biology and the physics of eyesight. But for conservationists, one potential benefit of this software is the ability to imagine life as a creature with a different physiology. One barrier to empathizing with wildlife without anthropomorphizing them is the barrier between our respective “umwelt.”

The concept of umwelt is a phrase of semioticians, people who study signs and the production of meaning. (More than a little theoretical, I know. But think of it like studying how we comprehend that things mean what they mean. Sort of.) Umwelt is the idea that the way any organism moves through the world depends on its anatomy. Different anatomies = different ways of seeing and interacting with the world.

But if we can break down that barrier and live as another species — even in such an insignificant way — we can empathize without the part of the veil of humanity.

If we’re using virtual reality to engage folks with wildlife and biology, the tarsier will likely be the first of many animals we’ll transmogrify into with the power of technology.

Put on these shoes, and you’ll be able to communicate through the ground like elephants.

Put on these headphones and learn how warblers converse.

Put on this full-body motion capture suit and live as part of Happy Feet 18: Climate Ch-ch-ch-changes!

Well, if it can help us connect with wildlife without anthropomorphizing and learn a bit along the way, it’s a great idea.

Voices from the Rainforest: Bagus Irawan, Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Raising Awareness for Conservation

Bagus Irawan is a Conservation Fellow in Sumatra, Indonesia, championing the Leuser Ecosystem, a verdant expanse of lowland and clouded mountain rainforests under extreme pressure from mining and palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.

Bagus focuses on community relations and conservation education. He is one of the few adults in the region that does not work for the government or an extractive company. Where many before him failed to make inroads with Kluet communities, Bagus is starting to succeed because of his patience and dedication to the forests he calls home.

Bagus (second from right) meets with local community members in the Kluet watershed. Photo by Bagus Irawan.

 

Why did you become a conservationist?

I was born and grew up in the South Aceh district, which is part of the Leuser Ecosystem. Since I was little I have been accustomed to interacting with forests and wild animals, so I had the dream of becoming a mountaineer at that time. I have been in conservation since I finished high school at a conservation institution. There, I came to know the importance of conservation to maintain the stability of nature and wildlife for human survival. I see too many people who are destroying forests and hunting animals, so I take a small part in saving forests and animals, especially in the Leuser Ecosystem.

 

Tell us about a conservation success at your project site.

Many conservation agencies and forestry authorities couldn’t access the Kluet region because of community conditions. We also had the same challenge — how many times have we been expelled and threatened? But we continued to strive and manage the strategy. Now, we have a very good relationship with the entire community there and we can carry out activities according to what was planned. We have built traditional house facilities and monitoring posts. We have also been considered as family by much of the local community. Even during the construction of our monitoring post, the local community offered their land free to us.

Working to provide an understanding of conservation to local communities, especially with people who have different levels of education, is very difficult. For economic reasons, communities often convert forests into monoculture plantations. The challenge is to change the people’s mindset to become a conservationist society.

The first time I interacted with the community in Kluet I got a strong rejection. But the conditions are now inversely proportional. I feel that I have become part of the community there, like being at home.

 

What inspires you most about being a Conservation Fellow?

I want to share my experiences with friends around the world about the conservation activities we have done in Kluet. I also want to learn about other conservation experiences around the world. With my limited experience and knowledge here, by working with other fellows, I can participate in campaigning for Leuser conservation throughout the world.

 

Why is conservation important to you?

The environment requires balance to carry out its functions. If nature is disturbed it will have a very bad impact on life on Earth. The Kluet region is a key wildlife habitat in the Leuser ecosystem and is a source of livelihood for 20,000 people. The majority of them are farmers who need water for their fields and gardens. If this region is destroyed and not conserved, this potential consequences would be inconceivable. I would be very sorry to see the source of life of my families there disappear. Not to mention, key animals such as Sumatran Rhinos, Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Orangutans and Sumatran Elephants — all Critically Endangered subspecies — will lose their habitat.

Conservation Basics: Saving the World With Enya

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

As I write this, the soothing tones of Enya’s “May It Be,” written for the Lord of the Rings film series, is playing through my headphones on repeat.

(Judge me for my work playlist. I dare you.)

At this point in the films, right after the events of the Fellowship of the Ring, our party of heroes has fractured. Orcs have taken Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are off to save them. Gandalf is (for now) dead. Boromir is (for good) dead. Sam and Frodo are schlepping to Mordor.

This post has something to do with conservation, I promise.

On that end-of-the-beginning cliffhanger, the screen fades to black and Enya chimes in:

May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true

It’s an interesting choice in tone. The plot has arrived at a rather dark moment. The promise of camaraderie is gone, the mission has dispersed and each character must decide for themselves how to continue. The potential world-shattering consequences of their journey are in the hands of each individual’s decision. And without any of them continuing to fight evil, all of them are more likely to fail.

But nobody goes home. No one dares let the darkness of the moment cloud their vision of a better future. They each have the choice of the easy route or the valiant — yet difficult and fraught-with-peril — route. And they all choose the latter. That could be why Enya, instead of bemoaning the loss of unity, availed our heroes of the universe’s fortune and courage.

The fight for our planet’s future is at a similar crossroads.

But I’m not convinced we’ve all decided to carry on.

I dubbed this column “Conservation Basics.” And I started it intending to convey the details of conservation science. I wanted those not versed in the annals of the field to be able to advocate for conservation-in-practice. But, as I wrote it, I didn’t explain the basics of conservation. I explained the basis of conservation.

Over three articles, I defined habitat with explorer chickens, tortilla chips and coffee snobs. And then, over three articles, I defined species with spaghetti, pastrami sandwiches and freak bears. And that’s basically ecology: habitat and species and their interaction. And pastrami sandwiches.

Conservation can essentially just come down to pastrami sandwiches.

Ecology has a lot of moving parts. But it all comes down to what lives where. Species live in habitats and habitats are home to species. In the words of the Talmudic-era Rabbi Hillel: “The rest is commentary.”

The interdependent and complicated workings of food webs, speciation, community dynamics and every other detail of ecology are the logistical framework of conservation. We need to organize our plans to protect species around the scientific details.

But I haven’t dived into what that means. How do you protect a bison population that roams beyond the boundaries of a national park? How do you protect a species of frog isolated to a disappearing corner of the rainforest? How do you keep poachers from taking rosewood out of a forest and shipping it around the world?

Those questions are the basics of conservation. But we conservationists are often so excited about explaining our plans, we can forget that we’re not always on the same page. We ramble on about our ideas without a common acceptance in the general public of why that work is so important.

We’ve decided to carry on in the fight for our planet, but we don’t always do a good job of convincing others to do so.

So I wrote this column.

And now you know about specific habitat requirements for species, so you can understand why coastal development can be detrimental for ecosystems. Now you know about what differentiates one species from another, so you can understand why protecting some random, rare hummingbird is vital to the legacy of evolution and ecosystem function. Now you know about the ramifications of (what you heretofore believed were) insignificant species going extinct, so you can pipe up next time someone asks “What do we need to save that stupid butterfly for?”

“Who you callin’ stupid?”

But where does this leave us? How do you all truly become advocates for conservation-in-practice if all I’ve done is talk about why it’s important in theory? I could continue this column with the actual fundamentals of conservation on the ground. But it wouldn’t be the same.

This column’s soul has come, I realize in retrospect, from the relationship that has always fascinated me the most: the one between habitat and species. And I could write more on that relationship. A lot more. But I have new ideas for more stories that go beyond that framework. So with this article, I’m closing out the Conservation Basics column.

“Wait!” you might say. “There’s still so much I don’t know. You just asked us: how are we supposed to be conservation advocates when people have so many questions that we won’t know the answers to?”

In the first article of this series, I introduced you to an elephant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wrote:

I don’t know where, exactly, the elephant is at this precise moment or if any other elephants are nearby. I don’t know if the elephant is sick, well-fed, hungry, stressed or relaxed. I know nothing about this specific elephant. But I know an elephant is somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those African Forest Elephants, still there in the DRC. Photo by Caroline Granycome/Flickr

Point is: there’s a lot we’re uncertain about when it comes to conservation. But later in that article I wrote:

Science is about uncertainty, but uncertainty does not consume science, nor does it immobilize it… We need not know every detail to save our planet. We only need to keep learning.

It’s ok that you don’t know everything. I don’t know everything. David Attenborough doesn’t know everything. People ask me questions I don’t know the answer to all the time. I’m sure if you asked David Attenborough about the digestive system of deep-sea vertebrate fishes he wouldn’t know the answer.

Actually, I wouldn’t put it past him.

But I will keep learning. David Attenborough has spent 90+ years continuing to learn. And, I hope, so will you. I’ll keep writing about conservation science, theory and practice on this blog, too. So keep tunin’ in folks!

I hope this column, if it did anything, relayed the splendor and wonder of habitats and species and their inexorable, dynamic relationship. I hope this column let you fall in love with the questions. Because we’re at a crossroads. Our planet is facing potential world-shattering consequences. And I need you to carry on.

It’s daunting. And it’s unpleasant to think about what happens if we fail. The task at hand might ask us to make unlikely friends and go places we’re not used to going.

But if Legolas and Gimli can forge on together, so can we. If Sam can jump from a river into a canoe so as not to abandon Frodo, we can ford that river of doubt.

The best conservation-surrogates in this whole extended metaphor might be Merry and Pippin who teamed up with trees to defeat deforestation. And evil.

I bet Middle Earth has some really cool wildlife. And some thriving ecosystems.

Our planet faces frightening future timelines. But the future, unlike the inscription on the One Ring, isn’t engraved in unbreakable stone.

We have the power to change it. You have the power to change it.

So as Enya said:

Darkness has fallen
A promise lives within you now

Conservation Basics: Saving Frogs at the Deli

Header photo by Robin Moore.

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

Sometimes I find myself telling people I encounter only every once in a while — like cab drivers, friend’s friends, the guy at the deli counter — what I do for a living.

“I work on protecting threatened wildlife in the tropics, like in rainforests,” I say.

“So what kind of animals are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” Sal asks as he daubs more spicy brown mustard on my pastrami sandwich.

“Oh, all sorts of stuff,” I say. “You know, elephants, monkeys, frogs…”

“Frogs!” Sal exclaims, mustard flying across the kitchen as his knife swings up with his full-body motion of disbelief. “Watcha tryna save a frog for?”

The deli. Home base of so many great conversations.

I get questions like this all the time. Which prompts the question: What are we tryna save frogs for?

In fact, let’s continue that line of questioning. What are we trying to save spiders for? What are we trying to save sharks for? What are we trying to save chimpanzees for?

For goodness sake, what are we trying to save elephants for?

Sal’s question, despite my facetiousness, isn’t a bad one. In fact, it’s a good one. It dives at a deeper question of conservation’s purpose and mindset.

Public attitudes about conservation, and, in a lot of ways, the actual work of conservation in the past century have focused on the big species. The iconic ones. Jaguars. Whales. Pandas.

Two reasons for that. Number one: Everyone knows a whale. You see a whale, the average guy on the street says “That’s a whale.” You see a Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard? Average guy on the street says “I don’t know, Iguana?”

The Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard. Or, I don’t know, an iguana? Photo by Luis Canseco Márquez.

Number two: They’re all mammals. Humans gravitate more towards species that look like us. So conservationists focus on these classic animals — pandas, whales, etc. — to keep people interested. But are these species more important?

We could get into a whole conversation (or, this is only me talking, so let’s say… a personal diatribe) on the philosophy of evolution, environmental ethics and the inherent value of organisms. But let’s talk about this with some measure of empirical evaluation.

Let’s define “ecological value” for now as relative value to ecosystem stability. As in, which species are more important to keep an ecosystem intact? Different researchers have had different theories on which species hold together an ecosystem. Plant-life is the obvious first thought, right? Every ecosystem needs a flow of nutrients, and where do nutrients always start? In plants. Photosynthesis takes sunlight (available in some quantity pretty much everywhere except cave ecosystems) and turns it into sustenance. Every species that doesn’t photosynthesize eats something that does, or eats something that eats something that does or eats something that eats something that eats something that does. You get my point. Without plants — life has nothing to stand on.

But in the later 20th century, a group of scientists made a series of discoveries that pointed to a much different reality. One scientist, a guy named Robert Paine, spent a lot of time knee deep in a patch of the Pacific Northwest coast. He, one by one, removed every individual of a predatory starfish species from one location over time. In another location, he left everything untouched.

Pisaster ochraceus, the deadly predator starfish Robert Paine focused his studies on. Look at its deadly… purple things. Ok, I don’t know that much about starfish anatomy. CC 2.0/Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

The micro-ecosystem in the location without the predatory starfish ended up collapsing. Which led Dr. Paine — and plenty of other scientists, in what is now a widespread belief because of repeated studies in other ecosystems with other criteria — to theorize that predators, often apex predators, stabilize ecosystems.

Let’s look at a theoretical example to understand why.

If an apex predator, such as a Lion, disappears or drops in population, the dominant prey species, such as an Impala, will see population growth. Fewer Lions = Fewer Dead Impala. Impala eat plants. With more Impala, they’ll be consuming more plants. If the Impala population grows out of control, they would eat all the plants. So now, by removing the Lions, we’ve killed all the plants. And once all the plants are dead, so will be the Impala.

But you could say the same about the Impala, right? If you removed the Impala, wouldn’t you have the same impact? Not quite.

Based on how food chains (or, to be more exact, food webs) work, an ecosystem will usually have more prey species than predator species. In that Lion-Impala ecosystem, you might also have Thompson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Ostrich, Reedbuck, a few species of Duiker, Eland, African Buffalo, Zebra and Giraffe. Those are all prey species. And I didn’t even list smaller mammals or birds, let alone lizard and fish species. Predator species other than Lions might include Cheetahs, Leopards, Painted Dogs, Crocodiles, two or three Jackal species and two Hyena species. Maybe some Bat-eared Fox and Honey Badger to eat the smaller stuff.

Remove one prey species — an ecosystem has more to fall back on. Remove one predator species — the ecosystem has a lot less wiggle room.

The Bat-eared Fox, who could eat the smaller stuff. CC 2.0/Photo by Derek Keats.

We know that apex predators play an outsize role in ecosystem regulation. But sometimes other species carry a lot of weight as well. Elephants, while not eating anyone else, topple so many trees, some researchers believe they keep grasslands from becoming forests. Parrotfish eat and excrete so much coral, they make much of the sand you find on the beach near a reef.

These are what Robert Paine called “keystone species.” Like the keystone in an arch, if you take these species out of the equation, the whole structure is a lot more likely to collapse than if you take out some other random stone. A lot of keystone species are predators. Some are not. A lot of the time, keystone species are also the species conservationists tend to focus public attention on — like tigers, jaguars and elephants. These species garner public attention and help regulate ecosystem stability more than other species. It’s a win-win for conservationists.

Hold on, wait a second. What about those frogs? Weren’t we going into this whole thing to learn about why saving some random frog is important?

Yes, we were. And I’m not done.

Some species make more of an individual difference. But all those other species add up. One by one, as they go extinct, you’ll have the same impact as losing a predator species: ecosystem collapse.

Imagine, from my earlier thought experiment, instead of the Lions, the Impala (and most of the other prey species I listed) went extinct. Now the predators have nothing to eat, and they’ll die, too. Only the plants would remain — and even then, not for long. I’d bet all the Impala and Zebra dung helped fertilize the soil. Or, the herbivores ate a few species enough to prevent them from overtaking the whole ecosystem. I don’t even know what all the ramifications might be.

The mighty Impala.

Neither do conservation scientists. Yes folks, despite all we understand about how ecosystems work, we don’t understand everything. And we never will. But there’s one thing we know for certain: If we let those little species, the ones who couldn’t possibly mean anything, go extinct, we might not witness any immediate crises.

But right now, scientists say we’re experiencing extinction at 1,000 times the normal rate. If all those species play some role in their ecosystems and die off one by one, wouldn’t that mean that eventually…?

Yup. Definitely trouble.

And if our theoretical ecosystem of plants, Impalas and Lions collapses, it’s not as if everything else nearby will be fine. Every ecosystem, from the poles to the rainforest, connects to another ecosystem. Mess one up, you mess up the one next door. Which affects the one next to that, and the one next to that, and so on and so forth.

You live in one of those ecosystems. Your food comes from one or a few of them, too. So does your water. One species, any species anywhere, going extinct puts us one step closer to global ecosystem collapse. I’m not trying to be an alarmist — it’ll take plenty of extinction to collapse life as we know it. But we’re on a path toward plenty of extinction.

That’s one reason saving every single species, no matter how obscure, unheard-off, freaky-looking, isolated or unimportant it might seem to be, is vital to the survival of life on Earth. Yeah, I said it.

Life. On. Earth.

So one reason we’re tryna save frogs ‘round here, is ‘cause they’s worth it, ya know? For everyone. Saving that frog is part of the difference between a world we can live in and one we can’t.

Sal, I’ll take that pastrami to go. We have a lot of work to do.

International Women’s Day

Ednah Nyambu, Kenya

Ednah works with our partner Nature Kenya’s Saving the Taita Apalis Program, protecting a Critically Endangered endemic bird species in the future Taita Apalis Forest Reserve.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

My day begins with an early morning hike to one of the largest refuges for the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis. Inside the forest, I patrol to assess forest disturbance in the form of grazing, fuelwood fetching and logging. I also carry out bird monitoring through identifying and recording birds species both heard and seen to assess abundance in the forest.

What surprises you about your job?

I was surprised about how willing and eager the local community is in wanting to learn more about the endemic species of the Taita Hills forest. Most importantly, they want to see the small bird, the Taita Apalis. I have seen the values of science through fieldwork and its contribution towards decision making and knowledge generation, especially here in the Taita Hills.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Informing the community of the uniqueness and endemism of the Taita Hills forests and the need to protect and conserve the forests is one of the activities I enjoy doing most in this job. Taita Hills is my home, and as a young, upcoming conservation leader, I feel honored to contribute whatever I can to sustainable conservation of forests for myself and future generations.


Ndelle Lizett Messame, Cameroon

As a project assistant with our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Lizett plans and implements field activities and species inventories. Here she is pictured (center) visiting with a baby chimpanzee in rehabilitation at the Douala-Edea National Park.

What would you like to share about your work?

As a woman conservationist, I feel very special because so many women shy away from this kind of job and consider it to be a dirty job. But they don’t know what it feels like conserving nature and ensuring sustainability of our natural resources. In addition, ever since I started working as a conservationist, I noticed that the interest I have in protecting nature is adding to my capacity as a mother to protect every person around me.

What is a typical day like in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is tedious, especially when I have to make my way through a dense forest of twisted trees. But in the end, you find yourself happy for having contributed to the promotion of nature conservation.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is to get the support of a village that has never been sensitized about conservation activities.


Kamala Rai, Nepal

Kamala Rai is a social mobilizer assisting with our partner KTK-BELT’s empowerment and conflict transformation programs. She is seated (center), documenting local traditions with community members in the future Lumbasumba Conservation Area.

Why did you choose this job?

As I got to know about the Lumbasumba Conservation Project, I thought this was my best opportunity to make locals aware of threats and conservation issues, educate them and serve my village by protecting ecosystems, habitats and species through community-based landscape conservation.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Conservation provides long-term benefits for the locals by protecting unique habitats, forests, plants, butterflies, animals and wetlands. I think conservation supports sustainable development goals rather than promoting short-term benefits.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I think the work we are doing teaches us how to work further. I feel attached to every part of the project and feel proud for serving my village and the conservation of surrounding nature. Thus, I don’t feel anything is hard about this job and assigned responsibilities.


Petga Feukeu Emilie Laure, Cameroon

As a field assistant for our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Petga supports eco-health education and outreach activities associated with Douala-Edea National Park.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

What I like most about this work is participating in the protection of the environment, nature, animal species, plants and rare resources. I appreciate the opportunity to sensitize and integrate the community into conservation projects, thus making it possible to shift their value to the biodiversity of a region.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is full of emotions and excitement to discover new surprises, but it is also a moment of escape from the daily grind of the city and a rest for the spirit.

What has surprised you about your work?

In the course of my work, I was surprised by the hospitality of the communities bordering the national park which facilitates the completion of the teams on the ground in an area where there are no accommodation facilities.


Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. The Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

Voices from the Rainforest: Guardian Spotlight on Walter Gaona

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Walter Gaona works as a forest guardian in the Copalinga Nature Reserve in southern Ecuador. Rainforest Trust and our local partner Fundación Jocotoco founded Copalinga in 2018, with an ecolodge for tourists already in place. Walter spends much of his time maintaining trails for visitors to enjoy and “learning how life unfolds in the reserve.”

But the more trying aspect of Walter’s role is monitoring the 370-acre property for harmful activities. Rainforest Trust Guardians strive to safeguard the protected areas we help create across the tropics. They are essential in this region of Ecuador, where premontane forests hold the greatest concentration of biodiversity in the country. Logging, mining, agriculture and human settlements threaten the region.

Part of the forest that Walter Gaona patrols. Photo by Doug Wechsler.

Walter receives his honorary inspector’s license. Photo by Fundación Jocotoco.

“In a healthy forest, you can find many things, among which I like to find very rare bird nests,” Walter shared. At least 432 bird species have been recorded in Copalinga, along with monkeys, endangered frogs and butterflies. But the illegal wildlife trade threatens animals there, and Walter said the most difficult part of his job is blocking poachers and their dogs from entering the reserve.

But Walter is now armed with more skills in combating illicit activities, along with the authority to take legal action against forest exploiters in Copalinga. In January, Walter attended a two-day training session to become an honorary inspector by the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment.

“Being an honorary inspector means that I can act in cases of extraction and/or transport of wild species in the reserve and other places,” Walter said. “After the training, I have legal tools to prevent these activities from happening.” He learned tactics to handle poachers and other threats, and received a license that underpins his work in Copalinga.

Walter shared his appreciation of being recognized for his work to protect the rainforest: “For me it is an honor to have been taken into account in this space. I am also grateful for this designation because I can contribute to taking better care of our ecosystems.”

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

Header image: The Vulnerable Military Macaw, found in Copalinga. Photo by Michell Leon.

The Pangolin, Unscienced

You might have heard of a pangolin. Or you might not have.

But Rainforest Trust’s Outreach & Communications Team wanted to show you the pangolin’s true anatomy. We hope that learning more about this animal found in Africa and Asia will lead you to learning to love the eight species of pangolin as much as we do. And, of course, we hope you’ll help protect them from extinction.

Original photo of Critically Endangered Sunda Pangolin by David Brossard.

This shy mammal has the distinction of being the one of the least known and most trafficked animals in the illegal wildlife trade. The pangolin’s Armoured Floof is attractive to many across Asia, as the scales are thought to hold major medicinal properties. And with a Chonk Level of 100, the interest in hunting pangolins for meat is a prominent problem.

While the pangolin’s main defense against poachers and other threats is curling into a tight protective ball, it does have Legs for Zooming if it needs to enter PanGOlin mode.

The pangolin subsists on ants and other insects, using T-Rex Hands to dig into termite mounds, and its Snack Sniffer to root out savory larvae. Some folks refer to pangolins as scaly anteaters, but a more apt title is “Artichoke with Legs,” considering its armored adorability. The pangolin’s Honestly Too Cute Face is enhanced by its Cuteness Extension on the other end.

It is estimated that 2.7 million pangolins are poached each year, so this World Pangolin Day, consider donating to save pangolin habitat in Nepal. All of your gift will go directly to conservation action at our project site, including being used to hire forest guards who ward off the biggest threat to pangolin survival: Us.

Click here to learn more about the plight of the pangolin.