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Trying to Save a Rare Poison Frog

The golden poison frog lives in a tropical forest in Colombia; for centuries, indigenous people used the poison frog for hunting. Illustrates FROGS (category a), by Eric Niiler, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, February 25, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Rainforest Trust.)

The golden poison frog lives in a tropical forest in Colombia; for centuries, indigenous people used the poison frog for hunting. Illustrates FROGS (category a), by Eric Niiler, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, February 25, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Rainforest Trust.)

For most of his career, conservationist Paul Salaman has been traipsing across South and Central America, looking for unusual animals that call tropical rain forests home. In recent years he has become obsessed by the rare golden poison frog, one of the world’s most toxic animals. The amphibians — which measure about two inches long and are covered by a secretion of a poison known as a batrachotoxin — number fewer than 5,000, all living in a tropical forest along the Pacific coast of Colombia. The species is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species.

The golden poison frog is both feared and coveted. Its scientific name, Phyllobates terribilis, includes “the terrible” because its toxins are so poisonous. For centuries, indigenous people used the poison for hunting. They collected the frogs and carefully rubbed their darts on the frog’s back where the toxin is secreted, using it to help bring down game. But doing so was treacherous to humans, too.

“There are stories where they shot a bird in a tree and the dart fell out and hit the person and resulted in instant death,” says Salaman, president of the nonprofit Rainforest Trust. The organization is coordinating an effort to protect the remote habitat of the golden poison frog. A preserve was set up in 2011, and Salaman hopes that will help reduce threats to the species’s survival from mining and collectors of exotic species.

The frog’s toxicity may strike fear in some, but Salaman sees opportunity. “It has potentially valuable properties for medical research,” he says of the poison. “Who knows what it could be used for?”

Salaman recently talked to The Post about this curious animal and efforts to save it.

Q: I know there are very toxic jellyfish and snakes. Would you put this frog near the top of the list?

A: When it was described in the scientific literature, the actual concentration in one individual (frog) has enough toxin to kill 13 adult humans. That’s equivalent to two bull elephants. This is the single most poisonous vertebrate. There are jellyfish that are comparable. It’s more toxic than any snake or fish or anything else.

Q: Do the local people avoid it, or use it?

A: They used to use it. It was the mainstay of their survival. They hunted for birds and mammals using toxin on the darts with blowguns. They don’t do it anymore. They were so concerned about the frog that as soon as they could get guns, they did, because it was much safer for (the hunters). All the kids now know not to touch them because they are extremely dangerous. They don’t harm the frogs. They respect (them) because the frog sustained their ancestors.

Q: Colombia has been under siege from political instability, rebel groups and drug traffickers. What is the situation like where the frog lives?

A: It remains slightly unstable. Some of the threats, like logging, haven’t reached the area, but unfortunately there’s a great deal of gold mining managed by the guerrillas. Gold mining on the banks of the rivers and streams are wiping out the habitat and polluting the rivers.

Q: You have helicoptered over the site. What did you see?

A: We went up the valley where the Golden Poison Frog Reserve was established in 2011. There were large areas that have been converted to great big excavation sites. Huge pits of earth have been moved aside to get the alluvial gold deposits beneath it. All the forest has been removed, and this was all along the rivers of the area. We estimated 50 or more huge excavating machines with claws and thousands of people clearing the forest.

Q: This is in the reserve?

A: The reserve itself is safe. It has some protected status. The problem is (that) the community land about a mile outside the reserve is being mined.

Q: What are some of the solutions you are working on to protect the frog?

A: In 2010, the local community gave permission to do the gold mining because it is among the poorest in South America. This community has depended on fishing as their principal diet. Unfortunately, they have lost almost all of their fish stocks since the river has become polluted with heavy mining: The rivers are filled with heavy silt, as well as mercury poisoning. A lot of the kids have got health issues because of it.

Confronting the gold miners is difficult. They are hard to talk with, they are aggressive, they know it is illegal. What we are trying to do is, within the community lands, to map restrictions on some of the areas where the frog (lives) to have it protected. We want to empower the indigenous communities through awareness and education and providing support for community forest guards to protect their lands.

We have to educate why the frog needs protection and give them the resources to protect it. It’s an infant state, but the community is very interested, so they are willing to set aside some of their land to protect the frog. We recently got a large donation to ramp up the project to help with community activities.

Q: Has there been any response from the government?

A: They haven’t got a firm presence. It will be a few more years before they get directly involved.

Q: What does the future hold?

A: It’s a shame that there are still these species struggling for survival. Almost every major zoo has this species, but when they are in captivity, they lose their toxicity (because they are not fed the jungle insects that give them their poisonous properties). It seems bewildering that we are struggling to save them.