Frogs are essential environmental indicators, but many species have vanished across the globe. We spoke to Dr Jeanne Tarrant, Threatened Amphibian Programme Manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, about these endearing creatures, and Leap Day for Frogs – an annual campaign to bring awareness to frogs, their fascination, and their plight.
Tell us about your background and what stimulated your interest in amphibians?
I grew up in the southern Drakensberg of KwaZulu-Natal and have always felt a connection to nature and animals. Although, to be honest this connection wasn’t very focussed on frogs! Like a lot of people, frogs scared me a bit. I thought they were slimy and strange! It was not until I enrolled for a MSc degree in Environmental Science through North-West University in 2006 and taking up a study on frogs of the Drakensberg and Lesotho that my eyes started opening up to the world of frogs. I truly had no idea what a diverse, interesting and widespread group of animals they are. This led to a PhD in Zoology on amphibian conservation in South Africa, and I have been incredibly fortunate to model a career on this, and the need to bridge the gap between academic research and on-the-ground conservation action for amphibians.
With heightened awareness around declining amphibian populations and conservation, what is the current global outlook for threatened species?
Amphibians as a group have been historically rather overlooked in terms of conservation planning and funding. With an increasing recognition that amphibians as a group are the most threatened vertebrates on Earth, this is slowly changing. There is a global action plan, first published in 2007, that is currently being revised, along with a practitioner guide to implementing the most urgent actions. Funding for amphibian conservation is also being increasingly recognised as important, and there is a growing public awareness about the biodiversity crisis, and I think, a genuine increase in interest in smaller wildlife. Social and television media also helps in spreading this urgent message to the public. However, with more than 40% of amphibians (a total of some 8000+ species) threatened with extinction, until we manage to protect critical habitats – especially forests and freshwater -, reduce our consumption and stabilise human population growth, the outlook for amphibians will remain on the decline. Much progress is being made on understanding threats and how to mitigate these, but this requires not just research, but massive behavioural change at both the public and policy level.
How many species are threatened in South Africa?
Of our 135 species, 43 species are listed according to the IUCN Red List categories:
|Critically Endangered (CR)||6|
|Data Deficient (DD)||4|
|Near Threatened (NT)||12|
|Not Evaluated (NE)||11|
The percentage of species endemic to SA is 54%, i.e. they don’t occur outside of our borders!
What are the major drivers contributing to amphibian declines?
Amphibians are the class most impacted by the current extinction crisis. Habitat loss and transformation is the primary threat to amphibians globally (affecting 60% of species). Loss of wetlands and forests in particular is of significant concern. The next biggest driver of declines is pollution and contamination, especially of freshwater ecosystems. Disease, in particular the amphibian chytrid fungus has been responsible not only for declines, but extinctions of numerous species. Climate change, the pet and food trade, and alien invasive species also all impact negatively on native amphibian populations. Often, these factors are working synergistically to exacerbate the effects on amphibian species, creating the ‘perfect storm’ for extinction. This is not only upsetting, but should be deeply worrying given that amphibians have been in existence for over 300 million years.
Please tell us more about the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibians Programme and some of the current projects?
The EWT Threatened Amphibian Programme was established in 2012, with one project on the Critically Endangered Amathole Toad, Vandijkophrynus amatolicus. We continue to work on this species today and are working to secure the first formally declared Protected Areas for the species’ habitat in the Eastern Cape Amathole Mountains through landowner agreements covering up to 20,000 hectares. We have also run a project on the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog, Hyperolius pickersgilli, since 2013, including habitat restoration of coastal wetland, through local employment to clear over 1000 hectares of alien vegetation from nine sites. We are working towards declaration of a Protected Environment encompassing 530 hectares of wetland and swamp forest with the traditional authority in Adam’s Mission on the south coast to protect these critical habitats.
We now run five projects across KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape focussed on eight threatened frog species (as well as some reptile work). The more recent work in the Western Cape includes improving catchment management based on research and monitoring of the Critically Endangered Table Mountain Ghost Frog, Heleophryne rosei – known only from a handful of streams on Table Mountain. In 2020, we started work on additional species in the Overberg region of the Western Cape, all of which are highly endemic, range-limited, threatened frogs. Namely, the Moonlight Mountain Toadlet, Capensibufo selenophos (Data Deficient); Rough Moss Frog, Arthroleptella rugosa (Critically Endangered) and Micro Frog, Microbatrachella capensis (Critically Endangered). This work, done in partnership with the dynamic Bionerds duo, Keir and Alouise Lynch, aims to improve knowledge on distributions and secure sites for protection through landowner agreements. Since June 2020, we have confirmed nine new localities for these species and three landowners have already committed to Biodiversity Stewardship agreements, to protect and manage sites on their land where these frogs occur.
You have been involved in numerous awareness programmes – what is the overall perception of frogs with the communities you have engaged with?
Perceptions of frogs are very varied. Some cultural beliefs have created genuine fear of frogs as these associations are based on beliefs of witchcraft and curses. However, even simple engagement and environmental education can go a long way to changing these attitudes towards the positive end of the spectrum. We conduct extensive community surveys to understand these beliefs and attitudes towards frogs, and the natural environment in general. Between 2019 and 2020, we engaged over 1030 community members and learners in environmental education programmes. Four hundred people in Adams Mission have signed for support of a Protected Environment adjacent to their community, a clear indication of the recognition of the value of natural ecosystem services.
Tell us about Leap Day for Frogs, the origins and events planned for this year?
This will be our 7th official “Leap Day for Frogs” – the concept of which hinges on the idea of leaping frogs (of course!), Leap Year (being held at the end of February each year), and taking a leap of action by members of the public that contributes to appreciation of frogs. The day aims to celebrate, recognise and appreciate the amazing diversity of frogs in South Africa, but also to bring action to the plight of frogs, which is that they are the most threatened animals on Earth. And that they play an extremely important role in the ecosystem, without which, we too as humans will “croak”!
This year, with the restrictions imposed because of Covid-19, we have postponed our usual events that involve gatherings of more than 100 people, but we encourage the public to organise their own events (the day has built a momentum of its own that several groups carry out their own annual activities) – you can follow these on the Leaping for Frogs Facebook Page.
We will also be launching an update of the Frog Atlas for South Africa, eSwatini and Lesotho. Help us with your contributions by uploading them the ‘Find your Frog’ project on iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/find-your-frog) and stand a chance to win some awesome froggy prizes that will help you in your citizen science quest!
What can readers do to contribute towards amphibian conservation, both at the grassroots level, as well as active support for the EWT projects?
Start by learning more about the frogs in your local area – we have several regional posters (feel free to email me to request these: firstname.lastname@example.org). Join relevant Facebook groups etc. to share and learn. Build a frog pond. Clean up and restore a wetlands/pan in your local area. Oppose developments that impact sensitive ecosystems in your area. Keep your garden wild and indigenous. Don’t keep frogs as pets. Have two or fewer children. Question your consumption (eat less meat). Donate to amphibian conservation projects.
About Dr Jeanne Tarrant
Programme Manager- Endangered Wildlife Trust, Threatened Amphibian Programme
Based in KwaZulu-Natal, Jeanne Tarrant, aka the “Frog Lady”, manages the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme (TAP). Her passion for amphibians began when she joined the North-West University (Potchefstroom) to do an MSc in Environmental Science. There she met Prof. Louis du Preez who heads up the African Amphibian Conservation Research Group, and “almost by default fell into the world of frogs”. Her thesis was on river frogs of Lesotho, including the second largest species in Africa – the Maluti River Frog, a huge frog that comes complete with teeth. She now has 14 years of experience in the field of amphibian research and conservation, having completed a PhD in Zoology in 2012 and her post-doctoral fellowship through North-West University, while at the same time establishing TAP for the EWT. Much of her PhD and post-doctoral research was dedicated to the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog, Hyperolius pickersgilli, at the time Critically Endangered, and which remains a key focal species of TAP’s work.
As a Programme Manager for the EWT, she is responsible for project design and coordination, specialist knowledge, partner and donor relations, fundraising and project management. The TAP team currently employs 7 full time staff – the highest number of people directly employed in frog conservation by any one organisation in South Africa. The programme is dedicated to implementing on-the-ground conservation action for South Africa’s most threatened frog species, and aims to:
- Elevate the conservation importance of frogs and their freshwater and associated terrestrial habitats within southern Africa.
- Implement conservation actions that align with global amphibian conservation goals.
- Bridge the gap between research and on-the-ground conservation action by supporting and implementing relevant research projects.
- Drive social change to promote behaviours that support sustainable natural resource use to the benefit of amphibians and their habitats.
Almost all of her work is linked to threatened frog species, which are usually associated with very limited distribution ranges and specific habitat types, most of which are not protected or well-managed, so this is where TAP focuses its efforts. Currently the programme has projects looking at about 8 threatened species across three province (KZN, Eastern Cape and Western Cape). Where a species may occur in several locations, we carry out prioritisation exercises to determine which sites are most in need of intervention. We also look at priority areas in terms of provincial and national conservation importance.
At a global scale, this work contributes directly to putting into action the objectives outlined in the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (ACAP 2007), which is a high-level, cross-disciplinary strategy to address amphibian conservation needs. The ACAP is the most ambitious program ever developed to combat the extinction of species and offers practical, large-scale, creative, innovative and realistic actions that will be required to halt the present tide of extinctions of amphibian species. Through its amphibian work, EWT is the only NGO operating in South Africa to include frogs as a conservation focus. Using threatened frog species as flagships for the conservation of important freshwater and terrestrial habitats, we implement species and habitat monitoring, initiate habitat protection strategies at important amphibian areas, improve management of important amphibian habitat, use research to support conservation action, and promote social change to galvanise behavioural change towards frogs and recognition of the importance of their habitats in South Africa.
Jeanne initiated and led the development of a Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP-S) for Pickersgill’s Reed Frog with the support of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. The plan was gazetted by the Minister of Environmental Affairs in June 2017 – the first such plan for a threatened frog species in South Africa to be formally recognised by government – and has to date achieved several of its objectives, including downlisting the species to Endangered from Critically Endangered in 2010. This plan identifies the key threats facing this species and outlines broad actions to mitigate against these threats. She has been responsible for catalysing exciting national and international partnerships with key players in the amphibian conservation realm, including local and provincial conservation authorities, ex-situ facilities, academic institutions and the Amphibian Specialist Group.
In 2020, Jeanne was recipient of the Whitley Award, or “Green Oscar” for her work in conservation. This award is awarded to grassroots conservationists form the global south – i.e. Africa, Asia and South America. Jeanne was one of 112 applicants, whittled down to 6 winners, and the only recipient with a project focused on amphibians. Edward Whitley, founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said that Jeanne is an inspiring leader who tirelessly advocates for amphibians – an often overlooked group. “We hope that this award will allow her to spread her important message far and wide, and bring about real change for amphibians and their habitat through science, policy, and community education.”
WRITTEN BY: Dr Jeanne Tarrant
Dr Jeanne Tarrant is the Threatened Amphibian Programme Manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.