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Hopping mad about money

Richard Black | 10:05 UK time, Friday, 21 August 2009

For some things, half a billion dollars might be a hefty sum to pay.

But for the survival of the world's threatened amphibian species?

Cheap at the price, you might think; but almost no-one, as yet, is paying.

Harlequin toadIt was almost exactly four years ago that the Amphibian Conservation Summit, held in a boutique hotel in Washington DC, came up with the half-a-billion price tag (well, just over $400m to be precise), and initiated the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan [667Kb pdf] aimed at keeping the remaining species alive.

That was their estimate of how much it would cost to protect the 120 most vital pieces of habitat, re-introduce 20 captive-reared species to the wild, restrain unsustainable hunting, establish emergency response teams that could intervene quickly when sudden extinction threatened - and everything else that needed doing.

This week, many of the scientists and conservationists who attended that meeting convened in a somewhat scholarly pavilion at the Zoological Society of London (with a cracking view of the wallaby enclosure) to look at how far things have come since then, what's worked and what hasn't, and to home in on two or three priorities for research and conservation in the years ahead.

Conserving amphibians is no academic exercise. The threat to many species' very existence is alarmingly real, most pressingly because of the fungal disease chytridiomycosis that was identified just a decade ago.

In a book published just before the London "mini-summit", two of the field's leading lights, Martha Crump and James Collins, point out that diseases aren't supposed to cause extinctions. The pathogen's path through a vulnerable population should slow and stop as new victims become scarcer and scarcer, like a fire running out of fuel.

Chytridiomycosis doesn't appear to play by this rule. Somehow - and there is still much debate about precisely how and why - it is removing entire species from the realm of existence, sometimes in just one or two years, in regions as far apart as Central America and Australia.

At the London meeting, Professor Collins (from Arizona State University) unsurprisingly nailed the chytrid fungus as one of the two causes of extinction that merited urgent attention - the other being land use change.

Everyone agreed that these should be the priorities for action and funding; but what funding?

Last year was supposed to be the Year of the Frog.

Kermit the frogZoos, aquaria and conservation groups ran special awareness-raising events. Schoolchildren raised money through raffles, collecting coins and selling ceramic frogs they had made. Luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough and Jean-Michel Cousteau called for action; Kermit the Frog from The Muppets went to Capitol Hill.

It may have raised awareness in some quarters; but money appears to be another thing entirely.

Kevin Zippel, programme director at Amphibian Ark, the organisation that co-ordinates captive breeding programmes in zoos and other institutions, reckoned that those zoos and other institutions had raised at most 1% of the half a billion dollars.

Claude Gascon, who co-chairs the Amphibian Specialist Group, said that perhaps 2% of the desired sum had been gathered and disbursed for on-site conservation projects, core staffing, and so on.

This is not to say that nothing has happened in the last four years.

The number of species in captive breeding programmes has more than doubled, to 95, though only a minority meet international best practice standards. Eleven key sites have been protected in key countries such as Sri Lanka and Colombia.

But these are drops in the pond compared to what is needed.

And although many of the scientists involved in the various amphibian initiatives work on other types of animal too, jealous eyes were occasionally levelled at the comparatively huge resources that bird groups can command, such as Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which was able to disburse £78m ($129m) in 2007 alone.

From the perspective of logic, this is crazy. Globally, birds are are much less threatened than amphibians; the latest Red List assessments put one eighth of bird species in the threatened categories, compared to one third of amphibians.

And whereas just 0.5% of amphibian species are increasing in number, 6% of bird species are growing [4.05Mb pdf]. If the conclusions of a 2004 report from BirdLife International still hold true, that's at least in part due to the money and resources that have been made available to help them - money that is not flowing to the frogs.

Squat purple burrowing frogBut of course it's not about logic, it's about emotion; and currently, in richer nations, emotion holds that birds are more compelling than the delicate "glass frogs" of Central and South America, the squat purple burrowing frog of India and the extravagantly decorated Mantella of Madagascar.

Politicians are generally showing little interest, meeting delegates reported.

Members of the US Congress are being lobbied to develop a conservation act for amphibians, as they have for great apes, elephants and tigers - mandating federal funds for conservation inside and outside the country - but there's little appetite, it seems.

There would doubtless be more if constituents were interested enough to lobby.

Even with resources, though, keeping the number of amphibian extinctions down is a tall order.

Despite promising laboratory results, field treatments for chytrid exist as yet only in the imagination of scientists. The burgeoning cities, roads and industries of east Asia will not stop burgeoning just because a few amphibians are hopping across their path.

In one of the very early pieces in our Green Room series, Tim Halliday, who then headed the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force, argued that the chances of stopping these extinctions were little more than nil - and conservationists should admit it and stop trying to delude the public (and themselves) into thinking otherwise.

Debate at this week's London meeting focused for a while on whether setting a goal of preventing 100% of extinctions was feasible or desirable; so clearly Professor Halliday's pessimistic assessment isn't shared across the board.

But, as we've discussed several times on these pages, setting a target isn't the same as meeting it, which requires commitment, expertise and resources.

Two of these things the amphibian conservation community has in spades. It's the third that worries me; and I fear that the missing half billion will be translated with increasing surety into the number of amphibian species that now populate only the history books.


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