Sometimes the act of coming to the rescue of an endangered species takes on the qualities of a military operation in urgency and logistics. Such was the case in November 2001 when a young zoologist by the name of Jason Searle traveled from New York City to the Udzungwa Mountains in Eastern Africa to bring back 500 individuals of the highly-threatened Kihansi spray toad to the Bronx Zoo. Now a banker in Boston, Searle describes here the context for the operation and what it was like to helicopter the frogs out of countryside in styrofoam coolers.
When the biodiversity study was done by the World Bank before the dam was built, they found a lot of new species in the Kihansi gorge in Tanzania. But it turned out that these toads gave birth to live toadlets and for that reason it’s a very unusual and exciting species. So these toads were discovered and they became the ‘poster child’ for the effort to save the waterfall. Conservationists were up in arms: ‘This is a unique species and now we’re going to destroy it’s habitat!’ There was uproar in the international community that we need to save this species.
The dam, however, was already going to be built and eventually it was determined that Tanzania didn’t have the experience or facilities to set up a captive breeding program for the toads. So it was decided that the World Conservation Society would spearhead the conservation and captive breeding efforts. The United States was an attractive candidate in general because we had more resources to deal with problems with breeding the toads as they came up. There’s fairly strong institutions in the US when it comes to amphibian husbandry and veterinary care. If the project was done in Tanzania and it failed and the toad went extinct, then would fingers be pointed at the World Bank and people would be asking, “Why didn’t you do this right?!” The thinking was: If we could transport them back to our program, our resources were pretty strong.
The plans to bring the toads here was a year in the making. The biggest challenge was getting Tanzanian government officials comfortable with the fact that we were there for conservation purposes only, not to release the toads into the pet trade, and that the Tanzanian government would retain ownership. They understandably didn’t want another institution to benefit from a Tanzanian resource. If these toads got out to enough institutions and into the pet trade, you could have a huge, uncontrolled population.
Finally, we went the week of Thanksgiving. We were there for two weeks and the first week was all meetings. The first thing the [government ministers] asked was, ‘We want to hear from Jason.’ They wanted to know what kind of experience the Bronx Zoo had, what was the protocol for transferring the toads? I was only in my late twenties and I was nervous. I had spoken with different amphibian curators about the methods for transferring amphibians so what we had brought were cardboard boxes lined with Styrofoam so they were like coolers. The plastic containers inside were drilled for ventilation and had paper towels in them. We would put ten frogs in each container and four containers per box.
The government meetings were a little tense. I can understand it too. Here we are and they’re thinking, ‘The US is coming in and solving our problem.’ We would be the same way if someone came in and said, ‘We’re going to solve this for you.’ It was also such a highly public project. A lot of Tanzanian politicians wanted to know, ‘What’s the big deal? You are weighing these tiny little toads against power to our people.’ I don’t think anyone is going to argue that these toads are more important than providing electricity. I’m certainly not going to argue that.
The first week was organizing and arranging equipment. You can either drive or fly to the gorge, but because we had the boxes we had to stay with them and we had to fly. There was a landing strip near the gorge because of the dam project, a sort of dirt clearing and a small motel built for the workers at the dam. At one point, there had been tens of thousands of toads near the waterfall but when I was there the water was already diverted so the population had decreased in size. I was relieved that there were even still toads visible. It had been a year of preparing and we had been getting weekly reports and each time the population would be less. It was sweet when we got there and you could see toads. They were easy to find. There was less spray so they congregated close to the river on the exposed rock or whatever vegetation, moss and ferns that were still growing.
There was no indication that there was chytrid fungus there, chytrid wasn’t a problem. Effectively, this toad had no predators in the area, no ants or snakes, the only problem was the decreased spray area. There weren’t that many people in the spray zone either. They had the misting system up at that time and there was an issue with sediment clogging the sprinkler heads. One person would go up once or twice a day to clean out the sprinkler heads. Since it wasn’t really working as it was intended there was talk of creating a water slide to shoot water at the exposed rock to create spray. It was a laborious, expensive effort to send someone up there to fix the sprinklers and just walking through these places caused some amount of damage.
By the third day we got everything set up and the plan was to catch the toads first thing in the morning, bring them back to the motel where there was air conditioning, and then head to Dar the next day. Everything went according to plan and we flew back to Dar. One of the government ministers had asked me to come and show him the toad before I left so I went to see him with a box. He saw them and said, ‘So this is what all the fuss is about? They’re pretty cute.’
It was the first and only time I was involved in such an effort and it didn’t feel heroic. Part of it was that I was naïve about the significance of it. It wasn’t like we were taking the last two toads from the wild. There were still toads there and no chytrid fungus. And I just figured, ‘It’s such a small area, there’s got to be another area where they could show up.’ As it turns out, they haven’t and now they’re extinct in the wild. But we didn’t know that would happen then. I think feeling of being a ‘hero,’ of saving the toads, could only come when they are reintroduced.