Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021
You don’t need to be a conservation biologist to know that the planet is in bad shape: all kinds of species all around the world are plunging toward extinction. But even if you are a conservation biologist, knowing that 1 million species are at risk of extinction is something else entirely from witnessing extinction on the frontlines firsthand.
This was the case for Andrés Charrier, a herpetologist from the Chilean Herpetological Association, who at the end of June took some colleagues to a small stream outside of the city of Calama in northern Chile to show off a frog he is especially fond of and has studied since 2013 with long-time collaborator Gabriel Lobos as part of a project supported by Chile’s Ministry of the Environment: the Loa Water Frog (Telmatobius dankoi). But instead of finding a flowing creek with dozens of happy and healthy frogs that live nowhere else in the world, he found…nothing.
“It was like a bomb went off in front of my eyes,” Charrier says. “The creek was completely dry. The grasses were dry and brown and we didn’t even find the carcasses of frogs, which means that it had been dry for a very, very long time. It’s something we talk about all the time—frogs are at risk, animals and the environment are at risk, climate change and drought, extreme weather conditions. But I have been working in conservation for the last 10 years with frogs and I never expected to see something like this. Never. Never.”
What Charrier witnessed that day in the middle of the Atacama Desert has since set off a chain reaction of events that has drawn on the impressive talents of a small team of experts in Chile, resulted in the swift evacuation of 14 of what are among the—if not the—world’s last Loa Water Frogs, and has gained international attention for its unprecedented speed and government support.
Operation: Water Frog
Just three days after Charrier discovered the decimated habitat—the likely result of water extraction for copper mining, agriculture and real estate development—he found himself back at the site, now in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment and the Natural History Museum of Calama (under leadership of museum director Osvaldo Rojas), and with both Lobos, who is a herpetologist with the University of Chile, and Hugo Salinas, who has been researching water frogs for many years. They wanted to see if they could figure out what happened to the frogs and their home, but had no expectations of finding any remaining individuals. In fact, all they brought with them were waders and a fishing net—no Tupperware or plastic bags to collect frogs if they found them, and no idea what they would do with the frogs if they did find them.
But about 100 meters from where Charrier and colleagues had stopped their search days before, the two found a small, muddy pool and wondered: could this animal somehow, impossibly, still be holding on? They started digging around in the mud where they found one, then two, then three, then five, then 10 frogs. Sickly, skinny and malnourished, but actual live Loa Water Frogs. They needed a plan.
“We had a choice to make,” Charrier says. “As scientists, we could either do something or we could leave the frogs there to die and then publish a paper about the extinction of the Loa Water Frog. We decided to do something.”
Enter the National Zoo of Chile, which belongs to the Metropolitan Park of Santiago, a public service of Chile’s Ministry of Housing and Urbanism. When the Zoo heard about the situation in the creek outside of Calama, they reached out to Charrier and Lobos, offering to house the frogs, to try to nurse them back to health and to start a conservation breeding program while the government and others could address their decimated habitat.
So back in the field Charrier and Lobos went, accompanied by Claudio Soto Azat, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, and Roberto Villablanca from the Ministry of the Environment from Antofagasta, to see if they could find the frogs again. On August 3, they returned to the National Zoo of Chile, by plane, with 14 Loa Water Frogs—the last best hope for their kind. In a show of international support, both the Amphibian Survival Alliance and Amphibian Ark have financially supported these efforts.
“Considering the complexity of the whole rescue and how many people you need to mobilize for something like this to be successful, I am very happy about the outcome,” Soto Azat says. “So far things have gone well. But we are not finished. This is just the first step in what is going to be a long and complex endeavor to eventually return the Loa Water Frog to the wild.”
Home Away from Home
If you’re anywhere near the amphibian conservation center at the National Zoo of Chile in the morning, you’ll hear a collective sigh of relief from the team caring for the Loa Water Frogs when they start their shift and find the frogs still alive. The reality is that though the Zoo has been home to a conservation breeding center for native Chilean frogs for the last 10 years, caring for a new species in captivity—especially one that nobody has ever tried to care for before—is a risky and daunting task, made more so by the fact that these are the last few individuals of their kind.
“I have experience with many species of amphibians, but this is the most difficult case I’ve ever had,” said Osvaldo Cabeza, supervisor of herpetology at the National Zoo of Chile. “But every day that passes, I feel that this species is telling us its secrets and how we can contribute to their wellbeing. Seeing the frogs’ slow recovery is really exciting—it fills my heart to see how they’re gaining weight and that their health is improving.”
The Zoo is as prepared as it can be, and only by coincidence more prepared than it would have been even a year ago says Andrea Caiozzi, general curator of the National Zoo of Chile.
“We have this feeling at the Zoo that the planets aligned, that something in the universe told us that this was the time for us to take something like this on,” Caiozzi says. “We had a ton of equipment from a grant we got for our new reptile house, a new zookeeper, recent discussions with Claudio Soto Azat and Andrés Charrier, and have been making connections this year with conservationists who know water frogs. We’re very sad about what has happened to the Loa Water Fog, but this emergency catches us at a good moment.”
The Zoo’s Loa Water Frog keeper team, led by Cabeza, has done a remarkable job introducing the frogs to their new home. Upon arrival, each frog—six females, seven males and one unidentifiable juvenile—was weighed, IDed, examined for lesions and then housed in pairs with visual barriers to reduce stress. The frogs all came in skinny and malnourished, so in addition to snails and other invertebrate meals, they’re receiving supplements.
The hardest part? Getting the water right. The water needs for Loa Water Frogs are very different not only from the other frog species the Zoo already cares for, but different from other water frog species, too. They require a higher PH and more alkaline, so Cabeza is working on creating chemical formulas for the water.
“We don’t want to get scared about the responsibility we’ve undertaken because we don’t want the fear to paralyze us,” Caiozzi says. “There are also so many teams with knowledge about Telmatobius who are willing to help us. Every species has their own challenges, but we’re not alone in this.”
There are at least 63 known species of water frogs—unique aquatic and semi-aquatic frogs that are among GWC’s focal groups of species—and they are all from the Andean highlands in South America. The National Zoo of Chile has been connecting with water frog experts from around the world, including the team in Bolivia at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, home to Romeo the Sehuencas Water Frog, previously the world’s loneliest frog.
“The Telmatobius genus is one of the most threatened in the Andes, yet information about the species is scarce, which is why sharing what we know can make a big difference, especially because extinctions can occur very quickly and there is no time to lose,” says Teresa Camacho Badani, chief of herpetology at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny. “It’s not easy to have the future of a species in your hand, but that’s why you can’t lose hope and have to work hard. Happy endings do happen.”
Happily Ever After?
For the Loa Water Frogs, happily ever after will require the safe return of future generations to their wild home. Making that happen is going to take an international collaboration and the commitment of the Chilean government not to stop at the rescue, but instead to prohibit the illegal extraction of water and formally safeguard the habitat as a protected sanctuary.
At the moment the government of Chile is conducting an investigation into copper mining companies that may have been responsible for draining much or all of the Loa Water Frogs’ habitat. But the area’s water faces other threats, too. The land was recently sold to a real estate developer, including the muddy pool where the frogs were found. The agricultural sector has also diverted irrigation canals, which then take the groundwater.
“Calama is a mining city, which places a low cultural and biological value on its resources,” Lobos says. “But I always thought that this frog was an incredible heritage of this town.”
The threats to the Loa Water Frog are not unique to Calama, but are common throughout northern Chile, where water is a scarce resource and drought has been unrelenting. This means that the 10 or 11 other water frog species in northern Chile are likely heading toward the same fate as the Loa Water Frog—or already there. So in addition to making sure the Loa Water Frogs’ creek flows again someday, conservationists want to see the government of Chile commit to a long-term research and conservation plan for all of the country’s water frogs, including, in some cases, conservation breeding programs.
Ultimately, and despite the shock of being witness to a near-extinction event just months ago, Charrier says his dedication to saving frogs is as strong as ever. When asked why he is so personally committed to frogs specifically, he pauses.
“When people tell me that I’m a hero because I save frogs, I tell them no, the frogs are the heroes for holding on,” Charrier says. “I’m just doing what commonsense people do. If you see a cat dying, you wouldn’t just leave it there, you would take it home, pet the cat, go to the vet, give it food."
"My actions are my message to the world: these species are dying and we can and we must do something about it.”