Q&A with filmmaker Trevor Ritland about his expedition to a remote corner of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in search of a lost legend
By Devin Murphy on February 10, 2023
The Golden Toad is one of Re:wild’s Lost Legends–species that have been declared Extinct, but still capture the imaginations of people around the world. The vibrant toad was endemic to a single mountain ridge in the cloud forest of Monte Verde, Costa Rica. The 2020 film Eldorado: The Search for the Golden Toad, tells the story of how the Golden Toad went Extinct and the local legend that the species has become. The sequel, Eldorado II: The Eternal Forest, picks up where it left off.
At the end of the first film, Eladio Cruz, a local naturalist, recounts a story in which he spotted Golden Toads during some field work in a remote area of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in Monte Verde in 1991–two years after the last confirmed sighting of the species. However, he had never returned to the spot to see if any toads were still there until 2021 with a small and nimble documentary film crew and a group from the Monteverde Conservation League.
Below is an interview with Trevor Ritland, director of Eldorado II: The Eternal Forest.
Q: It seems like there is a lot of local lore surrounding the Golden Toad, even though it was only ever recorded in one specific location and is believed to have gone extinct in 1989, can you tell me more about that?
Trevor: I think that's why there is so much local lore and local attachment to it, it was unique to this one area. It was Monteverde's toad, it was not found anywhere else. That's unique to have an endemic species that's so localized. Maybe they were other places–and maybe they are other places–but they were only ever observed in this one community. I think people do feel a kinship to it. Like this is like the mascot of Monteverde. When [the Golden Toads] were out, they were out in force. You could go up into the forest and see hundreds of them in one place. I think that's unique too, it's just that huge aggregation volume that is wild.
Q: Golden Toads are really fascinating and their history is really fascinating. Can you tell us a little more about them?
Trevor: I first started really trying to learn about Golden Toads maybe six or seven years ago. It was really tough to find a lot of writing about their natural history, but local people in Monteverde did see them and knew them really well. A lot of those accounts weren't recorded and a lot of those people are gone now, which is a shame because I'm sure there are great stories from the first people who went up into the cloud forest and saw them that just went unrecorded in that time.
Most of the actual recorded observations of these species come from Marty Crump and Wolf Guindon in that span of 1986 to '89. They would observe the toads only coming out for a few weeks right at the beginning of the rainy season in this really small area at the top of this mountain at Monteverde, in what is now the Cloud Forest Reserve. Always this buzz would go through town, ‘The toads are out, the toads are out! If you want to go see them now is the time!’ That pattern lasted right up from the time they were recorded by North American scientists in the 60s, they were only known to the local folks before then, until the '80s. There are local recollections of, ‘Oh, I saw them at this other site,’ or, ‘Oh, I saw them in a different season,’ but the general pattern seems to be end of April, early May or early June, [the toads] would come out, and then the rest of the time they were underground to the best of anyone's knowledge. They would go back underground. That was one of the things that everybody said when they first disappeared, ‘Oh, maybe they're just waiting it out underground,’ or whatever this calamity is, they're waiting it out and they were always hoping for the toads to reemerge and come back.
That's why I say that not finding them at this site in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest doesn't necessarily mean they’re not there. They may not be there and that's okay, but it really is intriguing that you had these bright orange toads–the males were bright orange and the females were spectacled red and gold and black. They were just these kind of other worldly alien-looking species that exist in this really small place and they only come out for a little bit of the time, and it's such a rugged wild environment. It’s windy and rainy, and actually cold up there on the spine of this mountain in the forest where all the trees are stunted and bent over from the wind and the rain. And it's all mossy. It really just feels like this crazy, foreign alien ecosystem that these really strange unique species lived in for a while, and maybe now are gone. I talk to the biologists who go out there and they say it just feels different when you don't see that flash of orange in the undergrowth that you were used to seeing for so many years. You'd see a bromeliad and for a minute, you'd think, ‘Oh, it's a Golden Toad,’ and it's just this bright red bromeliad. I think it still lives in that memory of this ecosystem that it only was known from.
Q: What is the biodiversity up like in the remote site that you went to in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest? Does it seem like a healthy ecosystem? What kinds of things did you see?
Trevor: We were in the Children's Eternal Rainforest, Bosque Eterno de los Niños, which is adjacent to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Monteverde and the Children's Eternal Rainforest are super unique. They are in one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, and they contain a huge amount of not only Costa Rica’s, not only the neotropics’, but the world's biodiversity. The Children's Eternal Rainforest is unique especially because it contains so many different life zones. You can go all the way down to the bottom of the mountain, all the way up to the top of the mountain, and in all those different life zones you find all these different species that have adapted to that life zone. Starting from pastureland which is where we started and going up through montane forest and cloud forest into the elfin forest up at the top, you can see it changing. The trees are really big at the bottom, and there's monkeys in the trees and there's all sorts of birds.
Then as you get higher up, the trees get lower and lower, and you still hear the birds but it starts to get a little bit eerie, and the sound of the wind is more than anything covering everything else. Then you find these frogs. I'm really grateful that we had the local people who know these forests best as a part of this expedition. They were a key part of this expedition. Luis Solano, was the head of maintenance at the Children's Eternal Rainforest. Eladio Cruz, who had last seen the Golden Toad 30 years ago. Mark Wainwright, who was a former president of the Monteverde Conservation League, and Gilbert Alvarado, he is a biologist from the University of Costa Rica. I'm pretty good at finding frogs, all these guys blow me out of the water and just have a familiarity with this ecosystem that I'll never have because I didn't grow up there, live my life there. Luis Solano is really the guy who would go into the woods and go down to a creek and just find all these frogs. We found a whole bunch of species and the ones that stick out are the Brilliant Forest Frog (Lithobates warsewitschii), the Green-eyed Frog (Lithobates vibicarius), and the Narrow-lined Frog (Isthmohyla angustilineata).
The Brilliant Forest Frog and the Green-eyed Frog had disappeared from that area totally, and are now coming back. The Narrow-lined Tree Frog, I think it's only ever been found in one other place in the Cloud Forest Reserve several years ago. It’s a very Endangered species. It's really, really cool to see that they have some strongholds there in that forest. It's really great to see that biodiversity in action. It's still not what it was based on what I've heard from 30 years ago. I heard that 30 years ago in Monteverde, you couldn't walk in a stream without stepping on glass frogs. They were just everywhere, and I would see them from time to time when I was in town, but not in the way that they used to be. It's also better than it was 10, 20 years ago. I think these populations of frogs and potentially other species are starting to reclaim these forests that they had abandoned when the climate change and the chytrid fungus had chased them out.
Q: It seems like there's a mystery around what exactly happened to the Golden Toad and what happened in that area. Are there any more answers now?
Trevor: With the Golden Toad in particular, it's easy to draw conclusions based on what was happening in that area at the time, but it's very difficult to say for certain. It's known that there was the chytrid fungus, which was this frog-decimating fungus, in that area at that time, and it's known that other frogs around Monteverde were found suffering from that fungus. It's also been observed that there were definitely impacts to the climate in Monteverde at that time as well. That forest is continuing to change because of climate change. It’s getting hotter and drier, but also wetter and colder. We’re seeing more extremes at different times of year. And it’s just harder and harder for amphibians to adapt because they're so vulnerable to that environmental change. When I look at that information, I draw the conclusion that a combination of the chytrid fungus and climate change is what annihilated the Golden Toads, drove them to extinction or, fingers crossed, drove them to adapt. We haven't seen the evidence of that, but you never know. Alan Pounds, he is a local Monteverde biologist who observed a lot of this amphibian decline happening, and he will tell you chytrid was the bullet, but climate change pulled the trigger, and I tend to agree with that correlation there.
Q: Neither Eladio Cruz nor anyone had ever returned to the site in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest where he had seen Golden Toads in 1991 until you returned with them in 2021. Why is that?
Trevor: The Children's Eternal Rainforest is just so big, it's the biggest private reserve in Costa Rica. There are really remote parts of it. I asked Luis Solano, who was the head of maintenance for the reserve, and he said, ‘Even I haven't been everywhere. There are distant mountains and distant streams that I'll look at and say, ‘Oh, it'd be great to go out there,’ but it's just a big place and really difficult to move through because there's not a defined trail system. It's a wild rainforest. There are really remote inaccessible areas, which is another reason for hope of the reemergence of these frogs. It's just so deep, and so wild, and so unexplored that there is the opportunity for there to be species that we don't even know about. In 2018, Eladio told me about this last site he had been to where he had seen the Golden Toad two years after it was widely reported to be Extinct. He told me he'd never been back. We always had kicked around this idea of going back, and I know Eladio had always talked about going back, and it's just one of those things that got pushed into the next year, and the next year, and the next year, and had never really happened. Yes, it was difficult to get up there, but Eladio remembered the way 30 years later. He and Luis found the way back, and it's really wild hiking with these guys. Eladio is in his 70s and he outpaces me on these forest trails, and Luis would just go up ahead of us and take a right, and disappear in the forest, and then come up from behind me again, and be just trekking and going through. When we're actually out there, it's easy to go, ‘Oh, I see why nobody's been back here in 30 years.’ Unless you're going there with that dedicated purpose, there's really no reason to be that far out in the middle of the forest that high up. To my knowledge and to Eladio's knowledge, nobody had really been back to that area at the right time in the right season to check and see if there were Golden Toads there. It was great to finally do that and to have Eladio there. I really look at it as being Eladio's story and Eladio's return. I was glad we were there to film it, and record it, and tell the story, but I was really happy to be part of the reason, the excuse, to go back after all those years and see the place again because I know he'd wanted to for a long time.
Q: El Dorado II, it could have been very somber, but it's actually really hopeful. How did you find those threads of hope as you were filming and telling this story?
Trevor: We had ended the first film [Eldorado: The Search for the Golden Toad] on this hopeful idea of revealing Eladio Cruz and his sighting of the Golden Toad that happened in a different spot in the cloud forest, not too far from Monteverde, not too long after the initial disappearance in '89. I was really infatuated with that hopeful ending and that hopeful idea and didn't really want to corrupt that or pollute that with reality. Then the more I thought about it and the more people asked, "Oh, when are you going back to that last spot?" It became clear that despite how I felt, it still felt like an unfinished story and people still really wanted that investigation of that hope.
I went into this second part of the story as [if I were] coming to terms with the grief of losing the Golden Toad, which I think is just as important as hope. It's good to have hope, but I think to ignore that grief is to ignore an important part of this story. The challenge was combining those two elements: [one of] grief that it may not be there and [one of] hope that it may still be there and see what came out of that chemical reaction. One of the more hopeful pieces in the story is the other frogs that we found that are still out there, some of which haven't been seen in years and years, some of which have never been seen in that area. That was the boon, the reward to acknowledging that grief and facing that grief. You get that consolation of, even if the golden toad is not still out there, there are these other frogs that disappeared at the same time that are as, Mark Wainwright says in the doc, ‘They're [these other frogs] not orange and they're not famous’ but they are just as important and it's great to see them coming back too. Then there's another element of hope, which is that the Golden Toad was this really strange species and that it only appeared at certain times of the year, only at the right times, in the right places. That was another thing that we came away from the expedition in the film thinking about: lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence. Not finding it there is not proof that it's not there. Maybe it's in a slightly different place or it only comes out at a slightly different time. I still like to live with that hope even though I feel like between the five years I've been working on this story, I have come to terms with the grief and the reality that it may not be out there and it's memory is still protecting and sheltering this forest that these other frogs are still calling home.
Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.