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Amphibian Crisis, Amphibian Ark and the 2008 Year of the Frog Campaign

09/05/2006 00:00:00 Amphibian species are becoming extinct at a pace never seen before. For the first time, scientists have gathered enough evidence to assert that humanity might be facing one of the biggest extinction crises of recent times. Species, genera, and even families are vanishing at alarming rates. In 2004, the Global Amphibian Assessment conducted by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) revealed that one-third to one-half of the world’s 6,000 amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction and over 120 have already disappeared.

It is widely believed in the scientific community that many more species may go extinct before we are able to act and the current generation will be held responsible for this loss by future generations, if no immediate action is taken. It is of utmost importance to raise awareness among national governments, world media, school educators, corporations, philanthropists, and the general public about the fragility of amphibians and the enormous responsibility that each of us has for trying to rescue the highest number of species from extinction. The Causes
Amphibians are severely affected by habitat loss, climate change, pollution and pesticides, introduced species, and over-collection for food and pets. While habitat destruction is the major causal threat, the most immediate cause is a parasitic fungus called amphibian chytrid, a disease that is deadly to hundreds of amphibian species and has slowly spread from Africa across the planet over the past 30-40 years. Global climate change may have exacerbated the problem. The amphibian chytrid was discovered a decade ago and since then dozens of frog species have gone extinct because of it. Since the 1930s, African clawed frogs (likely resistant carriers of the fungus) have been shipped around the world by the thousands for human pregnancy tests and lab studies, spreading the disease worldwide. Recently, the food and pet trade may have contributed to the problem as well. Amphibian chytrid fungus is unstoppable and untreatable in the wild, even in protected areas. In the environments where it thrives, the fungus can kill 80 percent of the amphibians within months, leading to widespread amphibian extinctions. The amphibian chytrid’s spread and effects may be compounded by climate change, as warmer temperatures dry the moist areas where amphibians thrive and cause stress that may lead to greater susceptibility to disease. Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (ACAP)
During the 2005 Amphibian Conservation Summit convened by the IUCN and Conservation International (CI), the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (ACAP) was conceived and drafted. The ACAP includes four primary components: research, assessment, long-term programs (including conservation programs, protection of key sites for amphibian survival, reintroductions, and control of harvesting), and short term programs that represent an emergency response to the amphibian crisis (including saving sites about to be lost, rapid response teams, captive survival assurance programs, and saving harvested species about to disappear).

While the ACAP’s greatest conservation priority is in situ (on site) action, some threats like chytrid fungus cannot be addressed in the wild. The 2005 IUCN ACAP white papers state that ‘survival assurance colonies are mandatory for amphibian species that will not persist in the wild long enough to recover naturally once environments are restored; these species need to be saved now through ex-situ measures so that more complete restoration of ecosystems is possible in the future.’ The IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG) specifically tasked the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) with implementation of the ex-situ (off-site) aspects of ACAP’s goals. Amphibian Ark and 2008 Year of the Frog
The global conservation community has come forward with a response to this crisis in the form of the Amphibian Ark. The Amphibian Ark is an initiative started by a group of concerned conservation organizations -- CBSG, ASG, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) -- to support ex-situ actions around the world whereby select species will be maintained in captivity until they can be secured in the wild. The scientific community has come to realize that captive management is a vital component of an integrated conservation effort to mitigate the effects of the current crisis and prevent it from becoming worse.

The Amphibian Ark is rapidly developing capacity to coordinate ex-situ programs implemented by partners around the world, with emphasis on programs within the range countries of each species, and constant attention to couple ex-situ conservation measures with efforts to protect or restore species in their natural habitats.

Members of the Amphibian Ark are WAZA members and WAZA affiliates members of regional or national zoo associations, ISIS, Amphibian Ark-approved private partners, museums, universities, and wildlife agencies. An Amphibian Ark Steering Committee with Executive Co-Chairs from each of the three principal partners provides strategic guidance and ensures excellent communication with all stakeholders. Advisory Committees are being formed to consult on species-specific issues, for example, reintroduction, gene banking, and veterinary, legal, and ethical concerns. Four officers coordinate all aspects of implementation within the Amphibian Ark initiative, assisting partners in identifying priority taxa and regions for ex-situ conservation work; leading development and implementation of training programs for building capacity of individuals and institutions; and developing communications strategies, messages, and materials to promote understanding and action on behalf of amphibian conservation. Captive Management and the Role of Zoos
Fortunately, a thriving industry already exists that specializes in captive management of animals, making it uniquely capable of addressing this need. Zoos and related facilities worldwide include over 1,200 institutions, with 100,000 employees and 600 million visitors per year, equivalent to one in every 10 people in the world. Zoos can assist with initiatives such as rapid response rescues, captive assurance colonies, providing animals for release and research, conservation education, capacity building, fundraising, and help to develop recovery plans.

The ex-situ conservation community faces many challenges to meet these expectations; first and foremost is the need for rapidly increasing capacity. It is estimated that the global zoo community can currently manage viable populations of approximately 50 amphibian species, amounting to perhaps 10 percent of those requiring ex-situ intervention. An appropriate response from zoos would include construction of additional biosecure facilities wherever they are needed, training keepers, and ensuring that resources are appropriately allocated to support these requisite actions. Of course, some zoos are already making valuable contributions to amphibian conservation by, among other things, constructing dedicated facilities on grounds and helping develop facilities in other regions of the world. Zoos are also leading dozens of amphibian conservation programs, including habitat restoration, translocations, conservation education, research, and region-wide amphibian community rescues. 2008 Year of the Frog
Zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens will play a crucial role as part of the immediate response by providing the ex-situ breeding grounds for some threatened species. The global zoo and aquarium community has taken on this challenge, but implementation calls for financial and political support from all corners of the world. Zoos and aquariums, as committed advocates of conservation, are in the forefront of a worldwide effort and face the challenge of generating attention that translates into resources and good will toward amphibian safekeeping.

Consequently, the Amphibian Ark has launched a global campaign under the name of ‘2008 Year of the Frog,’ with the view to support global and regional initiatives intended to save amphibians. Individual and collective support for this campaign will help develop the capacity to coordinate ex-situ programs implemented by partner organizations around the world. The main goal of this campaign is to generate public awareness and understanding of the amphibian extinction crisis and ensure sustainability of the survival assurance populations by creating funding for this conservation work that will extend beyond 2008. The money raised from this global campaign will also help fund global Amphibian Ark coordination activities and regional initiatives such as rescue workshops, cooperatively managed centers and coordination of activities within each region. Conclusion
Addressing the amphibian extinction crisis represents the greatest species conservation challenge in the history of humanity. Without immediate captive management as a stopgap component of an integrated conservation effort, hundreds of species could become extinct. The outcome of Amphibian Ark will be that we will have saved hundreds of species from extinction, developed capacity both within our institutions and globally to continue to provide amphibian species with care and protection when needed, formed a true partnership between ex-situ and in-situ components of conservation, established a model framework for responding to future species conservation crises, and demonstrated to the world that zoos and aquariums are essential conservation organizations. In the absence of an immediate and sustained conservation effort of this kind in support of captive management, hundreds of species could become extinct in our lifetime.

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