March 11, 2021
Endangered Frogs Bounce Back
HOW DENVER ZOO IS SUCCESSFULLY WORKING TO SAVE
TWO INDICATOR SPECIES IN PERU’S ANDEAN HIGHLANDS
Shimmering like a vast freshwater sea at an elevation of more than 12,000 feet, Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia in the remote Andean wilderness. Lake Junin, a few hundred miles away, is the largest body of water within Peru’s borders. Both are home to a variety of endemic species—animals unique to, and existing only in that place—including a couple of very important amphibians.
As the world’s largest entirely aquatic frog and the lake’s top predator, the Lake Titicaca frog (LTF) is both biologically unique and ecologically significant. And, like the Lake Junin frog (LJF) it’s also an indicator species, which means that biologists can use these animals’ health to measure the overall strength of the entire aquatic alpine ecosystem in which they live. So, when the Lake Titicaca and Lake Junin frogs were classified as critically endangered and endangered by IUCN, it became increasingly clear that the entire area, which is incidentally the headwaters of the entire Amazon basin, was under significant threat.
DENVER ZOO LEAPS INTO ACTION
Denver Zoo’s Peruvian field conservation efforts began in 2007, as all of our programs begin—with painstaking research to understand the specific problems these animals are facing. Our conservation biologists found that both frog populations were facing three main threats: pollution and water fluctuation caused by nearby mines, dams and human populations; illegal poaching for human consumption, as part of a traditional delicacy; and disease, particularly the infectious fungus, chytrid.
BACK FROM THE BRINK: A HOLISTIC APPROACH
As a zoo-based conservation organization, our work naturally starts with the endangered animals themselves. But we also understand that in order to influence long-term change in any of our programs, we must support our wildlife work with a spectrum of holistic conservation efforts in the communities we serve. Here’s a quick overview of the approaches we took in all of these areas—and how they turned out.
Foundational Research: Denver Zoo is continually working to develop a more complete understanding of the disease ecology and range of human threats related to the Lake Titicaca and Junin frogs. This includes developing, implementing, and training Peruvian colleagues to monitor frog populations in order to identify which species are being sold illegally in local and international markets. Denver Zoo was also instrumental in providing the first published documentation of chytrid fungus on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, which was key to understanding the full range of threats facing Lake Titicaca frogs.
Captive Breeding: Working with our partner, Lima’s Huachiapa Zoo, we collected a small breeding population of 20 LTFs, which traveled to their new home in our Tropical Discovery exhibit. In 2018, Denver Zoo became the first zoo in the Northern Hemisphere to successfully breed Lake Titicaca frogs. To date, we have provided more than 250 healthy LTFs to zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and Europe. This global “insurance population” of LTFs continues to grow and flourish under human care.
Local + Global Outreach: As with many of the threatened species we work with, public awareness is a critical piece of the solution; if the local people aren’t aware the problem exists, how can they contribute to solving it? Denver Zoo has worked with multiple partners to raise awareness with a variety of outreach campaigns and local events—from Frog Day and Symbolic Species Day events, to Ecological Brigade volunteer groups, to the Colorado STEM students who developed an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that Titicaca National Reserve staff can use to better understand the LTF’s habitat.
What’s more, in addition to our on-the-ground work in Peru, Denver Zoo also launched an international outreach campaign to raise awareness about the decline of the LTF and what it means for local ecosystems. This campaign resulted in several high-profile media stories—including articles in National Geographic, The Guardian, Wired, The Denver Post and others—successfully establishing the Lake Titicaca frog as one of Peru’s top conservation priorities.
Capacity Building: In order for a conservation strategy to be viable in the long term, it must also address the social and economic needs of the community. Denver Zoo worked with a variety of local partners and stakeholders—including CPSG Mesoamerica, Huachiapa Zoo, Titicaca National Reserve and others—to co-author the first-ever published conservation strategies for the Lake Titicaca and Junin frogs.
In addition, Denver Zoo is proud to support undergraduate and graduate research at Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University, ranger training for Titicaca National Reserve and Junin National Reserve staff, interpretation training for Huachiapa Zoo and the Reserve—as well as professional exchanges between the all of these entities. We also helped to establish a local women’s collective in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which makes a variety of frog-related handicrafts which they sell to community members and tourists. By incorporating frog themes into their work, the women help spread awareness to their communities about the importance of the Lake Titicaca frog while gaining supplemental income.
FROGS + FRIENDS: LOOKING FORWARD
Of course, conservation work is never done—especially not now, with our beautiful planet facing an unprecedented extinction crisis. As we look to the future of our Peruvian program, we’ll be working with Junin Reserve stakeholders to develop a management plan and engaging local communities in citizen science and Frog Day events to promote conservation awareness and clean water practices. We’re also meeting with regional governments to prioritize LJF conservation, with an eye to further scaling our program to include threatened local waterfowl like the Junin grebe and Chilean flamingo.
Can’t get enough froggy fun facts and conservation success stories? Make sure you swing by Tropical Discovery on your next visit, where you’ll find our active LTF army wriggling about in their tank. And of course, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for updates on the LTF and our other 3,000 animals!
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