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
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.