On the morning of the April 29, I got up at dawn to watch the Royal Wedding. Because it was also the 3rd Annual Save the Frogs day, my mind was full of frogs, too. So frogs, princes, frog princes, and fairy tales were all mixed up in my mind. I was trying to find a connection between these two events. True, the groom’s father, Prince Charles, is the main spokesman for the Prince’s Rainforest Project, which has a frog as its mascot, but…
Yesterday I came across a story in the Dorset (England) Echo that tied these two events together. It turns out Will and Kate weren’t the only couple married in England on April 29. Another couple, Sabrina Laben and Simon Pittman, also tied the knot. They did not (I don’t think) arrive at the church in a Rolls-Royce, probably didn’t have a trumpet fanfare, and definitely didn’t have a billion people watching their ceremony.
Instead, they created a Save the Frogs wedding. Sabrina loves frogs and in lieu of gifts, she requested that donations be made to Save the Frogs. A “frog and frogette” stood on top of the wedding cake instead of traditional bride and groom figurines, and they sent out frog-decorated invitations. They had their reception Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, noted for its idyllic setting and multiple ponds.
courtesy of weddingandcakes.com
The more I thought about it, the better I liked this idea of an amphibian-themed wedding. In many cultures, frogs are symbols of good luck, prosperity, and fertility. They are associated with fairy tales and happy endings and transformations (the frog turning into a prince). As Susan and I know, people seem to love giving frog-related gifts. And what better place for a wedding than near a beautiful pond? If it rains, even better—frogs love rain and you might have a frog chorus accompaniment to your wedding!
For more information about other events that occurred on Save the Frogs day, and about the organization’s ongoing efforts and activities, please click here
One of our first posts at Frogs Are Green was about the coqui, a frog native to Puerto Rico, where it exists alongside several other species of Eleutherodactylus frogs and where a biological balance is maintained. It was introduced to Hawaii in the mid- to late 1990s and has no competitors so it has spread unchecked and is considered an invasive species. But our guest author, Sydney Ross Singer, a medical anthropologist, biologist, and author living on the Big Island of Hawaii, would like us to look at this problem from a new perspective. Perhaps this “alien” species should not be rejected and destroyed but welcomed.
Besides being beautiful, fascinating, a source of medicinal substances, and essential for healthy ecosystem function, frogs are canaries in the environmental coal mine. They are sensitive to pollution and climate change. And their numbers are declining at extinction rates.
That’s bad news for the rest of us living in the coal mine. Clearly, we need to change our ways.
But change is difficult for a culture to accept. Until people are dying at the rate of frogs, nothing will alter our bad cultural behaviors.
So the next best thing to do is try saving the frogs. We may not be able to stop pesticide and herbicide use, or end the deforestation and development of wild areas, or stop all the industries and lifestyles that contribute to climate change. But we can catch frogs where they are declining and find new, healthier places for them to live.
We might not have the political and economic clout to stop multinational corporations from exploiting and altering the world’s environments. But we can help refugee species flee the destruction and avoid extinction.
There are places on the planet that can serve as sanctuaries for these refugees. One place, in particular, stands out as one of the best – Hawaii.
If you move frogs from one place to another that already has frogs, the immigrants will compete with the natives, and you can possibly lose native frog populations. Hawaii, however, has no native frogs, or any native reptiles, amphibians, land snakes, or lizards. What better place to introduce frogs? Lots of insect pests to eat, warm and humid conditions, and few predators. If we wanted a sanctuary for endangered and threatened frogs, this is the place.
But wait. Can we just move a species from one part of the planet to another? Won’t it become invasive and cause damage?
It is this question that is keeping frogs from finding new homes. According to current trends in environmental thinking, species “belong” where they are “native.” You’re not supposed to move them to places where they “don’t belong.” When it comes to frogs, the Hawaii government has said they clearly “don’t belong.”
Of course, there are already frogs and toads in Hawaii, which were brought by environmental managers for insect control decades ago. Back then species were introduced deliberately to enhance biodiversity and provide needed environmental services, such as pest control, or to serve as a food source. The environment was seen as a garden for us to plant and inhabit as we saw fit.
That has all changed. Now the goal of managers is to kill introduced species in order to preserve and restore native ecosystems as they had existed prior to western contact centuries ago. They won’t get rid of the people, or the agriculture, or the chemical spraying, or the bulldozing, or the deforestation, or the development, or the intercontinental shipping, or the industries and energy policies that help cause climate change. It’s hard to change these aspects of the culture. But you sure can kill things that “don’t belong.”
What was called “exotic” or “immigrant” is now called “alien” or “invasive.” We have gone from an open immigration policy to a bio-xenophobia.
When coqui tree frogs accidentally arrived in Hawaii with shipments of plants from Florida or Puerto Rico, the response was ballistic. The mayor of Hawaii declared a state of emergency. Scientists feared the sky was falling, and that the coquis, which eat lots of insects, would decimate the insect population to the point of starving all other insectivorous creatures. The sound of the frogs, a two-toned “ko-KEE”, was described as a “shrill shriek” guaranteed to keep everyone awake at night, run down property values, and drive away tourists.
Ironically, this same coqui frog is the national animal of Puerto Rico, its native land. In fact, Puerto Ricans love this frog and its chirping sound so much that it is honored in local folklore. People describe the nighttime sound of the coqui as soothing and necessary for sleep, and Puerto Rican travelers often bring recordings of coquis with them when away from home to help them sleep.
Puerto Rico has numerous species of coqui frogs, many of which are now extinct or threatened. Unfortunately, frog numbers are declining because of fungal infections, development, climate change, and pesticide and herbicide use. So you can imagine how angry and upset Puerto Ricans were when Hawaii announced its Frog War to eradicate the newly arrived coquis.
Over the past 10 years, millions of dollars have been spent in Hawaii trying to kill coquis. And despite wide cost-saving cuts in government spending, there is still money to kill coquis.
At first, they tried an experiment to kill coquis with concentrated caffeine, giving the frogs a heart attack. A special emergency exemption was needed from the EPA to allow this spraying of caffeine into the environment. It’s impact on humans, pets, plants, lizards, and other non-target species was unknown, or what it would do once it entered the groundwater and flowed to the oceans. Chemical warfare suits were needed by applicators to prevent exposure to the highly dangerous caffeine, which was at concentrations 100 times that of coffee. There is no antidote for caffeine poisoning.
When the caffeine experiment proved untenable and too dangerous, citric acid was encouraged as a frogicide. Sprayers soaked the forests with acid, sometimes sprayed from helicopters, to drench the tiny frogs and burn them to death. Of course, this also killed plants and other critters, such as lizards. But since lizards are non-native, nobody in the government cared.
But citric acid is expensive. So another experiment was tried, using hydrated lime to burn the frogs. This caustic chemical can also cause irreversible eye and lung damage to people and pets on contact, so another emergency exemption was needed from the EPA to experiment with it. As it turned out, the hydrated lime didn’t work very well, and it killed lots of plants.
So the University of Hawaii experimented on developing a frog disease to unleash on the frogs. They tried a fungus to infect the frogs, the same one killing frogs elsewhere in the world. They realized the fungus might also kill the geckos, skinks, anoles, and other lizards, as well as the toads. But since none are native to Hawaii, none of the eradicators cared. In fact, destroying all the lizards and toads would be considered a plus. The coqui frogs, however, survived the fungus, so it was never released wide scale.
By now you may wonder how people can get away with this abuse of frogs. Aren’t there laws protecting animals from this type of cruelty?
There are. So to get around the laws the Hawaii legislature passed a law defining the coqui as a “pest.” Pest species are exempted from humane laws.
This moral depravity reached its zenith in 2007, with a planned Coqui Bounty Hunter contest to be held by public schools on the Big Island. Schools instructed students to kill coquis, either by burning them with acid, cooking them alive, or freezing them. The school with the most “kills” would receive a prize — the violent video games Playstation 3 and Xbox. The contest was canceled once it was pointed out to the schools that students are supposed to receive humane, not inhumane, education.
Despite the eradication attempts, the frogs spread. Actually, sometimes they spread because of these attempts, since coquis try leaving areas disturbed by spraying. An interisland quarantine on the coqui still exists, requiring all plant nurseries to treat plants with hot water, proven lethal to coquis and their eggs, prior to transport to other islands. But the coquis seem to frequently survive that, too.
So here is the irony. Frogs are disappearing from everywhere in the world except in Hawaii, where the government is trying to make them disappear.
Yet, despite the endless anti-coqui propaganda, people are coming to like the little coqui frog, especially those people who have arrived to Hawaii since the advent of the coqui. To these people, the sound of Hawaii includes the coqui. To these new human immigrants, the coqui is normal, and enjoyable. They understand why the Puerto Ricans love these frogs.
If we are to save the world’s endangered and threatened frogs, and other wildlife that needs rescue from the human-damaged world, we need to change our environmental immigration policy. It doesn’t matter where a species is native, or where it “belongs”. That these species survive is what matters. And this may require finding them a new home.
This is not to suggest that we bring in species willy nilly, without thinking about the impact on local species. We need careful study to know which species can be introduced, and where. But unless we open our borders, and our hearts, to these refugee species, they will die.
We caused their problems. Their fate is in our hands.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sydney Ross Singer is a medical anthropologist, biologist, and author living on the Big Island of Hawaii. He is an outspoken defender of the Hawaiian coqui frog, has created Hawaii’s first coqui frog sanctuary, and has been featured on Animal Planet, PBS Nature, BBC radio, and Univision. He is co-author of Panic in Paradise: Invasive Species, Hysteria, and the Hawaiian Coqui Frog War (ISCD Press, 2005). His website is www.HawaiianCoqui.org.
Today is Save the Frogs Day, organized and created by conservation biologist Dr. Kerry Kriger. Tune in to hear an interview today with Dr. Kriger at 4:30 US Eastern or 1:30 PST (Sirius 112/XM 157) on Martha Stewart Living Radio.
As it’s been almost a year since we began the Frogs Are Green blog, we thought we’d share some thoughts about it with you. At first when we told our friends and family we were starting a blog to increase awareness about the global amphibian decline, they were a bit mystified, even amused. But I’m happy to say that a year later, almost all have become enthusiastic supporters. So we’d like to give you a few “talking points” in case you come across people who say with skepticism—frogs needs saving? Huh?
Frogs, of course, are not the only animals that need help, and we are personally involved with efforts to save other animals, particularly marine animals. But amphibians as a class of animals are threatened with extinction. That’s like saying that all mammals might soon be extinct. This is the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. Frogs have survived for 360 million years (and were on Earth long before the dinosaurs) and yet one-third or more of frog species are in danger of extinction.
Frogs are bioindicators—they reflect back to us the environmental health of our planet. Their permeable skin makes them especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants, such as agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical chemicals, particularly endocrine disruptors. Frogs are manifesting reproductive deformities and hormonal disorders, possibly as a result of the stew of chemicals in the water in which they live. As endocrine distruptors are in the water we drink and are in dozens of consumer products we use everyday, we have reason to be concerned. Some scientists believe that an increase in the incidence of newborn baby boys born with genital deformities might be due to endocrine disruptors they have absorbed in utero.
Biodiversity is of critical importance to all of us—scientists still don’t fully understand how all elements interact in an ecosystem, but we do know that disasters occur when we alter even one small part of it (by introducing nonnative species etc). Frogs form an important part of ecosystems as both predator and prey.
While there is no cure yet for the chytrid fungus devastating frog populations, it should make us pause to consider that a whole class of animals could be wiped out by a worldwide fungus. Why aren’t frogs able to fight this off this infection? What are the underlying causes of the fungus? There are so many questions that need answers.
Frogs are subject to all the usual environmental woes—habitat loss, pollution, global warming, overcollection, invasive species. By helping frogs, we help other animals that might not have such a high profile (although frogs have a pretty low profile, all things considered). By focusing on the rainforest frogs, for example, we also help preserve the rainforest and its animals.
Frogs are part of our cultural heritage—our folktales, fairy tales, myths, children’s stories, and legends. In many cultures, they are a symbol of good luck, fertility, healing, prosperity, and are associated with rain and good harvests. And don’t forget our friends Kermit, and Frog and Toad, and Mr. Toad.
The amphibian decline is an environmental issue that you can do something about, possibly in your own backyard or neighborhood. We recently received a comment from a man in Georgia who decided not to fill in a pond on his property because he noticed that several frog species live in the pond. Another commenter from Pennsylvania has asked how he can create a frog pond in his backyard. You can lend your voice to land conservation efforts that protect vernal pools, for example.
Rachel Carson warned in her 1961 book Silent Spring about a world without birds. Can you imagine a world without frogs? Frogs, after all, are the Earth’s most ancient singers. We want to continue to hear their choruses for a long, long time.
So as you enjoy Save the Frogs day, listen to some frog songs. And please join us in helping to save frogs. We’d love to hear from you.
Dr. Kerry Kriger, conservation biologist, founder, and Executive Director of the amphibian conservation organization, Save the Frogs, first conceived of and coordinated this event in 2009. The goal of Save the Frogs Day is to raise awareness about the global amphibian extinction, and to get people of all ages involved in amphibian conservation efforts. On his Save the Frogs website, Dr. Kriger has a powerpoint presentation that can be downloaded, lesson plans for teachers, and many other ideas for students to get involved.
You might consider putting up a display in your school or community center. Susan and I recently put up a display at City Hall in Hoboken, New Jersey, with frog books, drawings of frogs we’ve received from kids, illustrated posters, a poster about the global amphibian decline, and so on. So many people stopped to look at the display as we were putting it up. They were genuinely surprised to learn that amphibians were in such danger.
FROGS ARE GREEN display currently at City Hall, Hoboken, New Jersey
You can download our mission poster (seen above on the right and left in the display) or a poster of a rainforest tree frog in our store. We also have eco-bands made from 100% recycled silicone, other posters, and t-shirts (proceeds go toward Save the Frogs and Amphibian Ark ).
You may also want to throw a Save the Frogs Day party with fun frog-related party favors.
Please send us your event ideas or JPEGs of your Save the Frogs Day event and we will post them in a gallery on our blog!