We speak to award winning ‘Frog Lady’, Dr Jeanne Tarrant, who heads up the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme, is the Chairperson of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, southern African region, media representative of the Herpetological Association Of Africa and 2020 Whitley Award winner. Dr Tarrant tells us about the state of frogs and the effects of habitat loss, pollution, invasive plants and superstition has had on them. If you don’t hear frogs as much as you used to, Dr Tarrant explains why.
Firstly, how did the programme get started?
“The EWT was starting to look at frog conservation back in 2012, just as I was completing my PhD in amphibian conservation. It was a matter of mutually approaching each other and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) provided the perfect structure with far more support than I could have established had I started my own organisation. Hence the Threatened Amphibian Programme was born – in September 2012, with a small grant for Amathole Toad conservation through the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. We continue this work today through habitat protection for this Critically Endangered species. For three years I was the only member of the programme, but I now manage a team of seven staff across the country working on our various projects.
Tell us about the challenges facing frogs in SA today.
Like globally, South Africa’s frogs are threatened primarily by loss of habitat. This can be direct habitat destruction or fragmentation of habitat. Mostly as a result of agriculture, industrial development and residential development. We have lost a huge proportion of our wetland habitat. Invasive species are also a problem, mostly in the form of alien invasive plants which destroy natural habitat and dry up precious water resources. Amphibians are also very susceptible to pollution and changes in the environment, and climate change could threaten many frog species as they are much less able to move considerable distance to new spaces – many species are highly adapted to very specific habitats, and unlike birds or larger mammals for example, they can’t cover big distances to move away from threats. We are addressing these major challenges through our habitat protection and management work. We use threatened frog species as flagships for the conservation of important habitats.
People might say what difference does it make if there are no frogs – tell us why this is wrong and how important they are in the ecosystem?
Frogs have been around for a very long time. A lot longer than us humans. Their ancestors were on earth before the dinosaurs (from about 350 million years ago) and they survived the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Amphibians as a group have evolved to occupy most places on the planet. In other words, they have been a very successful group for a very long time. Humans have only been around for about 200,000 years. Amphibians are immensely important in our ecosystems as 1) they provide food to a huge range of other animals, including humans in some places; and 2) they consume huge numbers of insects, including pest species that may impact on crop production and carry diseases, such as malaria. In other words, if we lost frogs from the food chain, the consequences would be very dire, including for humans as we are all linked. Threatened frogs represent important habitats, which in turn support all of our lives and livelihoods. Another really important role of amphibians is that, because of their sensitivity to changes in the environment, they are a really good indicator of the health of the environment. And this links to human health too. The fact that 41% of amphibian species globally are facing extinction really should be a massive wake-up call to us that all is not well with our environment.
What programmes do you have in place to mitigate the destruction of amphibian species and their habitat?
We make use the Biodiversity Stewardship programme to formally declare protected areas through landowner agreements. More than 80% of land in South Africa that is home to threatened biodiversity is owned by individuals or companies. South African legislation, under the National Environment Management: Protected Area Act, helps wildlife organisations work with landowners to voluntarily set aside and protect important habitat to safeguard it for the future through a process called Biodiversity Stewardship. The owners work with conservation experts to map out the area in question and then collaboratively write a management plan relating to how the land will be looked after for a particular species, habitat, or group of species. Declaration then follows a legal process to incorporate the Protected Area zoning into the landownership contract. We are doing this to protect habitat for the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog in Durban (500 ha of coastal wetland in Adam’s Mission); 10,000 hectares of grassland in the Eastern Cape and will begin the process for three species in the Western Cape.
How are amphibians affected by superstitious beliefs?
Many people in South Africa associate frogs with witchcraft. For this reason, there is genuine fear of frogs across certain cultures where the belief is that should you see a frog in your house it means you have been cursed. Other myths include that frogs shoot lightening from their mouths, or that that frogs can make you sick. None of these are true. We work to understand what these beliefs and superstitions are, and where they might come from. In the areas in which we work, we educate school groups and communities to explain that these beliefs are incorrect. These learnings are mostly embraced and we can see changes in attitudes to frogs almost immediately. Cultivating an appreciation for frogs and the crucial roles they play in our ecosystems – and there link to human health is an extremely important part of the work we do.
You have won the very prestigious Whitley Award for your work, what research do have planned with the prize money? (The Whitley Awards, also known as the ‘Green Oscars’, are annual awards given to six individuals from the southern hemisphere by UK-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature).
I will be revising a national strategy to help guide conservation and research on South Africa’s frogs over the next ten years. I will be working with other experts across the country and base the strategy on the global Amphibian Conservation Action Plan, looking at various needs, including research priorities (taxonomy, monitoring), addressing threats and habitat protection needs of the region’s threatened species, as well as focusing on education and capacity building to support these needs. Through the Whitley Award we will be able to increase the number of threatened frog species we monitor from three to six. We will develop conservation action plans for two threatened species. And ultimately we aim to protect 20,000 hectares of important amphibian habitats – coastal wetland, montane grassland and fynbos.
How can the public help?
The best thing the public can do is learn more – learn more about the frogs in your area. There are many great resources to help you do this. Ultimately we need more people working in amphibian conservation, and conservation in general, to address the major threats facing the world. Frogs truly are fascinating animals, and the more people that realize this and appreciate them, the further along the road we are to their conservation!
For more info go to: https://www.ewt.org.za and here: frogs and their calls:
You can also start appreciating the role of frogs in the environment. Attract frogs to your garden by having indigenous plants and consider a small pond.
Don’t buy frogs as pets or as food.
Don’t run over frogs – look out for them on rainy nights.
Don’t use pesticides or herbicides in your garden.
Don’t use harmful chemicals in your home.
Consider where your food came from and how it got there.
Donate to the EWT Threatened Amphibian Programme
This currently may be of interest in terms of the links to human health and pandemics – amphibians have been suffering their own mass pandemic for the past two decades – affecting over 500 species: https://www.ewt.org.za/sp-april1-2020-global-pandemics-why-the-amphibian-extinction-crisis-also-needs-attention/ The Threatened Amphibian Programme team are:
Cherise Acker – Senior Field Officer (KZN)
Jiba Magwaza – Junior Field Officer (KZN)
Joshua Weeber – Junior Field Officer (Western Cape)
And our Biodiversity Protection Officers in KZN (field and community engagement at our Durban sites) – Nonkululeko Nzama, Nomonde Ngidi and Arlene Mkhize.
We also work closely with the Bionerds on a consultancy basis for several of our projects. https://www.bionerds.co.za
About The Endangered Wildlife Trust: Our country is home to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a world respected conservation body we are fortunate to call our own. The EWT, which started out back in 1973, was founded by Clive Walker, along with James Clarke and Neville Anderson, and operated from a house. Originally the three worked together to save the cheetah – already in decline in the 1970s. The trust later moved to the Johannesburg Zoo, but outgrew its home there, becoming the much larger and highly specialised and diverse operation it is today. Working not only in South Africa but across southern and east Africa as well as partnering with conservation groups in many other countries, the EWT recently celebrated moving into its very own headquarters in Midrand. Here, they will have the space and facilities they need to keep expanding the vital scope of work that they do. Headed up by CEO Yolan Friedmann and staffed by a wide array of conservation experts who have years of research and experience in the field, the organisation is a one of its kind in the country. EWT staffers are out in the field daily, working to protect the rich biodiversity of the continent and the animals that live on it. Importantly, they are constantly researching and implementing programmes to involve communities, so that habitats, animal species and humans can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.