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Locals saving locals: conserving frogs in Madagascar

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

We’re localphiles in the Pacific Northwest—we like our local food, local brews and local music. At Woodland Park Zoo, we’re working hard to get that sentiment extended to our local wildlife. And now, everything we’re learning from our work with native frogs and our Northwest communities, we’re taking with us all the way across the globe to support conservation efforts in Madagascar.

There, “local” takes on a deeper meaning—of Madagascar’s 292 known frog species, all but one exists nowhere else on the planet. Alarmingly, nearly one quarter of these endemic frog species are threatened with extinction. The time for action is now.

The critically endangered golden mantella is found only in Madagascar. Photo by John Mather via Wikimedia.

The zoo’s Amphibians of Andasibe project—a Wildlife Survival Fund conservation project—is directly addressing the rapid loss of local amphibians in Madagascar through the support of Association Mitsinjo, a community-based conservation organization in Andasibe, Madagascar.

Madagascar native Boophis pyrrhus. Photo by Franco Andreone via Wikimedia.

The first step is to halt the crisis. Mitsinjo has successfully created Madagascar’s first biosecure facility where amphibians like the critically endangered golden mantella can be bred, reared and cared for, assuring future populations against the threat of extinction.

The breeding facility in Andasibe. Photo by Jenny Pramuk/Woodland Park Zoo.

In addition to providing funding, Woodland Park Zoo has been able to lend our expertise to get the project up and running. Zoo curator and herpetology expert, Dr. Jenny Pramuk, has twice visited the facility to help train local staff in the proper care of amphibians, setting up standards, establishing evaluation tools, and bringing supplies that would otherwise be inaccessible to the community. Woodland Park Zoo keepers have loaded Jenny up with donations of their own—from lights to disposable gloves—outfitting the amphibian technicians with the tools of the trade they know work best.

Jenny Pramuk (far right) brings equipment and goodies to the Mitsinjo technicians. Photo courtesy of Jenny Pramuk/Woodland Park Zoo.

With the facility in place, the next step is to involve locals in conservation action. Seven locally-hired technicians now work at the facility maintaining populations of nine frog species. The work stretches out into the community, where locals have been trained to monitor and track frog populations and patrol frog habitat for threats such as illegal logging.

Amphibian technicians check on tadpoles at the breeding facility. Photo courtesy of Association Mitsinjo.

It’s no easy task. Andasibe is one of the richest areas in the world in terms of frog biodiversity, with more than 100 frog species found within a 30 km radius of town. But the work, challenging as it is, has become truly rewarding to the community. 

Guibemantis pulcher at the facility. Photo courtesy of Association Mitsinjo.

“Only four years ago, the unique amphibian diversity of the region was of little importance or relevance to people’s lives here,” Devin Edmonds, the project’s Amphibian Conservation Director, tells us. But now the community conservation model has citizens actively involved. And having more people involved, means having more eyes on the situation, which is helping to identify emerging issues. Patrols to breeding sites this year revealed habitat destruction and signs of illegal logging at one site with nearly 200 trees felled, which local staff was able to report to Ministry authorities in the capital.

Protecting amphibian biodiversity in Madagascar can by extension protect habitat for other native species like the indri, one of the world's largest lemurs. Photo by Jenny Pramuk/Woodland Park Zoo.

These accomplishments are admired in the community and a source of pride. According to Edmonds, “the average resident in Andasibe only makes about $1 per day. Our frog surveyors are specialized, skilled community leaders who are looked upon as having particularly good jobs, and this affects the outlook of our entire organization and the broader population of Andasibe. This is one of the strengths of Mitsinjo, as it is an organization formed by community members, and other than the proposals and progress reports written in English and some of the coordination, our work is entirely operated by people who live in and are from Andasibe.”

With plans underway to complete a conservation education center, featuring a live frog room with terrariums and education programs for local students and residents, Mitsinjo has established something that is truly of the people and for the people.

Mitsinjo’s Lead Amphibian Technician, Justin Claude Rakotoarisoa, works with staff at Parc Ivoloina to improve their new breeding facility so it is capable of supporting survival assurance colonies of threatened frog species. Photo by Devin Edmonds courtesy of Association Mitsinjo.

And now it’s time to pay it forward and spread that localphilia. The Mitsinjo project has been so successful that the project runners are now helping other communities in Madagascar establish their own amphibian conservation centers with the help of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. After meeting with the local staff of a new breeding facility operating out of the Parc Ivoloina zoological park near Toamasina, Madagascar, Mitsinjo staff reported: 

They took us to their new amphibian captive breeding facility, a small building about the size of a one-car garage… 
We were impressed! Although small, the team at Parc Ivoloina had set up live food cultures and created four terrariums to house captive frogs within. These basic aspects of amphibian husbandry are the first steps in being able to manage a captive survival assurance colony of a threatened species should a threat arrive that can’t be addressed in time to prevent its extinction.  
With more than 75 species of frogs found in the forest managed by Parc Ivoloina, including over two dozen local endemics, this was the unique set of skills needed to ensure a future for them should a foreign disease arrive or climate change push a species to the brink in coming years. 
[The local technicians] Rakoto and Pascal talked to us about some of the difficulties they were facing—the building got hot on sunny days, the solar panels and electricity were not reliable, cricket colonies hadn’t been successful, and the terrariums they had built were so tall it was difficult to service them. 
[We] assured them that these were all difficulties Mitsinjo had faced at the start in Andasibe as well. We would work together in the coming months, and find solutions as one. I proposed a training exchange, whereby Rakoto and Pascal work at Mitsinjo’s functional breeding facility in Andasibe for a month while Mitsinjo’s experienced amphibian technicians come to Ivoloina and work with them to address some of the challenges they were facing. 
We set up a draft itinerary, made plans to improve infrastructure of their building, got the OK from the bosses, and we are now anxiously awaiting again to see them this time here in Andasibe. 

In honor of their inspiring work, how about we raise a local pint?