Facing an array of threats, including the crushing demand of international trade, our planet’s amphibians are in desperate need of help.
The world doesn’t always notice when smaller species are in trouble. But if our planet’s amphibians – frogs, newts, salamanders and other species – were to disappear, we would certainly take note. Among their many other benefits (which can include everything from pest control to carbon storage), these creatures are indicator species, telling us a great deal of how healthy or vulnerable our environment may be. So it should concern each and every one of us that nearly one-third of all 6,400 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction, making them the most endangered group of animals in the world.
Within the last couple of decades, many of these species have suffered a massive population loss. And although the threats to amphibians are as varied as the species themselves, one common driving factor impacting species around the globe is the extreme exploitation for international trade.
Legal and illegal, captive-bred and wild-caught, all elements of the trade play a role in driving up the demand for these animals, which are used as pets, or harvested for food, medicine or other products. As a result, international trade in wildlife and wildlife products is seriously affecting amphibians in all parts of the world. In Latin America, which holds the highest diversity of amphibian species in the world, the impacts have been especially striking.
So this year, we are working hard to stem the damage to some of Earth’s most imperiled amphibians. Working with our colleagues in Latin American countries, we’re gathering support for proposals that will be presented at the CITES Conference of the Parties later this fall. Through this international effort, we hope that country members will adopt global regulations in place to better protect several species from the brutal demands of international trade.
Lake Titicaca Water Frog
This remarkable frog is the largest high-altitude aquatic species in the world. The Titicaca water frog (Telmatobius culeus) lives only in Lake Titicaca, which borders Peru and Bolivia at an elevation of more than 12,500 feet. To get the oxygen it needs at such a high elevation, the frog has evolved a unique adaption: the strange folds of skin covering its body actually allow it to take up oxygen directly from the water.
Unfortunately, illegal trade of these frogs is common – they are often harvested for their meat and legs. It is estimated that in Bolivia alone, more than 40,000 of these highly endangered frogs are collected per year to satisfy the local, national and international demands for food consumption. The population of this once-common frog has plummeted more than 80% in just the last 15 years.
Hong Kong Newt
The Hong Kong newt (Paramesotriton hongkongensis) lives only in very specific parts of China. Though it used to be quite common, it has become wildly popular in the pet trade, leading to high numbers being taken from the wild and shipped all over the world. The United States, Europe and other markets import the species as part of the pet trade – currently with few restrictions. In fact, some estimates suggest as many as 223,924 Hong Kong newts were brought into the U.S. in the last five years, many of them taken from the wild. If we do not take measures at the international level to regulate the trade of this species, it will only continue its steep decline.
Three species of burrowing frogs native to Madagascar are also on the docket for this fall (Scaphiophryne boribory, S. marmorata, S. spinose). All three come from a country rich in biodiversity, but sadly threatened by rampant habitat loss. The green burrowing frog, for example, lives on the forest floor, burrowed into layers of leaf litter. As forests are logged or developed, the frog loses the habitat that provides it with food and protection from predators. With habitat loss already putting tremendous pressure on these species, it would be reckless to continue to subject them to unregulated trade as well.
The last category are the aptly-named tomato frogs. These species – the Madagascar tomato frog (Dyscophus antongilii) and Sambava tomato frog (Dyscophus guineti) are a bright reddish orange, and both are highly sought-after for the pet trade. One species of tomato frog is already listed under CITES, but the other two face similar threats, and need the same level of protection from unregulated trade.
In the coming months, we will continue to advocate for these species with countries from all over the world, urging their CITES representatives to speak in favor of these proposals. And at the meeting later this fall, we’ll be providing all the interested representatives with factsheets on the species and proposals. With so many species at stake each year at the CITES convention, many of them particularly large and charismatic, amphibians can often be overlooked. But we will be there to make sure that our most vulnerable amphibian species get the attention (and the protection) they need.