Rescue Team Evacuates World’s Last Few Loa Water Frogs from Perilously Dry Habitat in Chile
International Wildlife Organizations Call on Chilean Government to Continue Remarkable Efforts By Abolishing Illegal Water Extraction and Protecting Frogs’ Wild Home
As part of an unprecedented and swift rescue mission, a team of conservationists and government officials in Chile have evacuated what may be the world’s last-known 14 Loa water frogs (Telmatobius dankoi)—a species considered critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and found only in a single stream in Chile—just before their habitat dries up almost completely from the illegal extraction of water, leaving the frogs malnourished and barely hanging on.
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“I have been deeply impressed by the skill and resolve of the team in Chile acting to prevent the extinction of this species,” said Helen Meredith, executive director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance, which is financially supporting the rescue efforts. “So many critically endangered amphibian species risk slipping away unnoticed because they do not have an active group of people committed to their survival. This gives me great hope for the Loa water frogs—they face an uncertain future but have a group of champions committed to their survival.”
As part of the rescue mission, the animals have been relocated to the National Zoo of Chile, where the zoo’s specialists are trying to nurse them back to health and are talking to water frog experts around the world for tips on how best to care for and eventually breed them. A number of international wildlife organizations—including Amphibian Ark, the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, the Amphibian Survival Alliance and Global Wildlife Conservation—are calling on the government of Chile to continue this great work by now protecting and restoring the frogs’ home in the wild.
In late June a team of conservationists, government officials and indigenous leaders discovered that the habitat of the Loa water frog outside of the city of Calama, located in the middle of the Atacama desert, had dried up as the result of extraction of water for mining, agriculture and real estate development, in a region where water is a scarce resource. All of the frogs had been pushed into a tiny pool of muddy water. The team collected the last 14 individuals and brought them to the National Zoo of Chile to start a conservation breeding program.
“The first big challenge is to help these frogs survive and while the rescue was the best chance to save the Loa water frog, there are always risks with trying to care for a new species—especially when the animals are already struggling,” said Alejandra Montalba, director of the National Zoo of Chile, which belongs to the Metropolitan Park of Santiago, a public service of Chile’s Ministry of Housing and Urbanism. “That’s the main goal right now, and later we need to be able to breed them. But ultimately we need to work very hard to restore their environment because it’s pointless to breed them if they don’t have a home to go back to in the wild.”
The international conservation community is ready to help, and specifically encouraging the Chilean government to halt the activities that are threatening the Loa water frog, to restore its habitat and formally protect it as a sanctuary or reserve that is regularly monitored.
“We request that consideration be given to the development of an emergency plan for the protection and recovery of Loa frog habitat,” said Jon Paul Rodríguez, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “For this reason, we call for the establishment of a technical working group, to assist the work in this matter.”
There are at least 63 known species of water frogs, or Telmatobius species, found from Ecuador to Chile, including in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Many of these species, like the Loa water frog, are microendemic, which means they live in just one small place. Water frogs are semi-aquatic or entirely aquatic, making them very sensitive to any changes in their environment. Habitat destruction, pollution, disease and invasive trout are among the biggest threats they face. About 10 species of water frog live in Chile, and many of them are likely facing the same threats as the Loa water frog.
Perhaps the most well-known individual water frog is Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog from Bolivia and formerly the world’s loneliest frog. The Sehuencas water frog team at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, where Romeo lives, has been among the experts helping to advise the National Zoo of Chile. In addition, Romeo has written a letter to the Loa water frogs at the National Zoo in Chile encouraging them not to lose hope, and narrated a video about their plight. Global Wildlife Conservation is asking individuals around the world to spread the word about the Loa water frogs using the hashtags #SaveTheLoaFrog and #SalvemosLasRanitasDelLoa to show international support for the frogs.
Ariadne Angulo, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group
“Although this is a critically important rescue, it is the first part in a multi-pronged process. To achieve our shared vision of ‘amphibians thriving in nature,’ there must be nature to return amphibians to, and the Loa water frog is no exception. Losing the small habitat of the Loa water frog means losing the species from the wild, and if captive breeding is not successful, then potentially losing the species completely.”
Claudio Soto Azat, co-chair, IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group Chile
“Without the zoo, we wouldn’t have made it this far. The situation was so critical, the main habitat was so dry, that the rescue was the only option. If the zoo wouldn’t have had the capacity to do it, the story right now would be very different.”
Anne Baker, executive director, Amphibian Ark, which is also financially supporting the rescue efforts
“Amphibians have an important role to play in the ecosystems they inhabit, and they can’t fulfill this role if they’re only found in aquariums somewhere. But I am optimistic for the future of this species because of the amazing collaboration among the various parties, and a government that seems to be committed to the future of this species, as well. This sets up an environment in which success is very possible.”
Andrés Charrier, herpetologist, Chilean Herpetological Society, and rescue mission member
“What will happen to the frogs in Chile will happen to the people here in the not too distant future. If the frogs from the high mountains from Santiago start dying because their rivers go dry, we will have no water to drink in Santiago. These connections are critical.”
Don Church, president, Global Wildlife Conservation
“Global Wildlife Conservation is proud to be committed to the conservation of water frogs, a unique and charismatic group of frogs that have gained notoriety over the last few years thanks to Romeo the Sehuencas water frog. This is important because water frogs across the Andean highlands in South America need our help. The story of the Loa water frogs is a cautionary tale, one that should spur us to action for all other water frog species before they also potentially decline to only a few individuals left.”
Global Wildlife Conservation
GWC conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at https://globalwildlife.org
Amphibian Survival Alliance
The Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) promotes the conservation of amphibians and their habitats through dynamic partnerships worldwide. ASA raises awareness of amphibians and their plight, and helps channel resources towards the implementation of vital conservation actions, as guided by the global Amphibian Conservation Action Plan. ASA works directly with the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group and Amphibian Ark to achieve the shared vision “Amphibians thriving in nature”. ASA champions the extraordinary work of its partners to build a strong, collaborative future for amphibian conservation. Learn more at www.amphibians.org and www.synchronicityearth.org
The Amphibian Ark is committed to ensuring the survival and diversity of amphibian species, focusing on those that cannot currently be safe-guarded in their natural environments. Working with NGOs, Universities and Zoos around the world we assist with assessing the conservation needs of amphibian species in a country or region, providing training and capacity building where it is needed, and providing conservation grants to help establish rescue facilities in range countries.
IUCN Species Survival Commission
With over 8,000 members, the Species Survival Commission (SSC) is the largest of the six expert commissions of IUCN and enables IUCN to influence, encourage and assist societies to conserve biodiversity by building knowledge on the status and threats to species, providing advice, developing policies and guidelines, facilitating conservation planning, and catalysing conservation action.
The IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group
ASG provides the scientific foundation to inform effective amphibian conservation action around the world, stimulating, developing and conducting scientific research of the conservation status of amphibian biodiversity and informing the general public of amphibian conservation-related issues and priorities.