Millions have been spent to save a tiny Tanzanian toad. An incredible story with an incredible bill. Is it worth it?
Needless to say it was not Tanzania that saved the toad. Tanzania had no qualms about replacing a tiny toad with a dam that now produces a sizable portion of its needed electricity.
It was supporters of the Bronx and Toledo zoos and the Wildlife Conservation Society and to me it’s one of the most exciting success stories (so far) in worldwide conservation.
But I wince at the cost, not fully revealed but capable of sour estimation.
The Kihansi Spray Toad Nectophrynoides asperginis was only discovered in Udzungwa in Tanzania in 1996. Udzungwa is one of the most magical places in East Africa, a Tanzania treasure in part because it’s so huge and inaccessible.
I’ve climbed the granite edges of one of its many, many waterfalls and there are incredible similarities to jungles around the world in terms of the density and variety of species, towering canopies and peat laden forest floors.
But quite unlike most of the world’s jungles, this is not a flat place. It’s forever mountainous and cavernous with some stupendous drops. Ergo, waterfalls.
This tiny little creature lived in the spray of one waterfall.
Really?! I think it’s premature to suggest that’s it, although most of the scientific literature says so: that’s it. Five acres. Kihansi’s world is twice the size of the little cliff on which sits my current home. But so much of Udzungwa has yet to be carefully surveyed, might there not be other Kihansi toads somewhere else?
But the scientific community mobilized in the presumption this was it. Five acres. And five acres of misty waterfall sides that would disappear when a dam was built in 1999. And all of this came to pass.
Dam for Tanzanian development. One of maybe hundreds of water falls stopped. Spray ended. WCS scientists monitored the demise of the species after the dam began functioning in 2000, and in five months the population crash was so severe, they collected nearly every last one they could find : 499.
The toads were rushed to the Bronx Zoo, bred quickly and dispersed to five zoos around the United States. Only one other zoo, the Toledo Zoo, was able to create a sustainable population.
Despite multiple scientific surveys of the area subsequently, no toad was seen in 2005, and in 2009 the IUCN officially declared the toad extinct in the wild.
Enormous science was garnered from this little thing. It’s an unusual toad, with its babies born alive, not as tadpoles. One remarkable discovery occurred when scientists desperate to save every last one performed a C-section on a dime-sized mother and learned that babies were at one stage tadpoles, only living within the body of the mother.
So the Bronx and Toledo zoos prevailed through fungus diseases, lighting problems and discoveries that America’s “pure water” would kill the creature. Soon lots of toads were being produced in two zoos.
Meanwhile back at the World Bank which produced the dam which squashed the toad which motivated this worldwide conservation effort, successful conservation lobbyist mined funds to build a gravity-run misting machine in Kihansi Gorge to recreate the original habitat conditions.
And in mid-August this year toads were flown back to Tanzania, where they were monitored and nurtured for four months before being freed back in Kihansi Gorge in the spray of the artificial waterfall spray mahine, about ten days ago.
“I’m guessing it’s in the millions,” one of the lead scientists, Dr. Jennifer B. Pramuk, curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo, estimated for the New York Times the cost of just the misting machine project.
Here’s my real worry:
Machines break a lot in Africa, even simple machines, and repair isn’t simple, even simple repair. Reconstructed habitats are never what they’re intended. Imagine the global warming changes that have effected the region in the 7-10 year absence of the toads from the area.
If Kihansi truly only lives in this little 5-acre plot, man’s arrival even to “help them” could be all that’s needed to wipe them out. Forget about the dam, or global warming. Just man’s arrival and moving them unnaturally from place to place could be all that’s needed to make them extinct.
We’ll see with time. Remain vigilant, as I will be, because what happens to Kihansi will be fundamental to decisions to save other species in years to come.
Saving wildlfie and wild places is complicated and getting even more so. It’s most imporatnt that all types of governement agencies, NGOs, universities, etc work together in various ways. Reintroduction of endangered species will never be the total anwser, but it is an important tool. There are many examples aside from this tiny toad, including California condor, black-footed ferret, Arabian oryx, etc.
For those that criticoze the $130 + million US accredited zoos and aquariams spend on many different types of conservation programs “outside their walls” (much of which comes for WCS – NY), it is money available to conservation from zoo and aqaurium donors and would not be available if it were not for zoos.
Saving a tiny toad (time will tell) may seem insignificant, but as one small piece of a much larger picture it is extremely imprtant.
Every species is a unique product of a long evolutionary process that once extinct is gone forever. Unfortunately we humans tend to evaluate the value of a species based on its real or perceived value to us. Although we may prefer to have conservation efforts directed towards the preservation of charismatic megafauna, in terms of genetic makeup, this toad is just as valuable as the African elephant, cheetah, bald eagle or Homo sapiens.
As the process of restoring extinct species will only get easier and much, much more cheaper as genetic engineering rushes forward, the question isn’t the cost, it is whether humans should do this as a principle, restore what is extinct?
The cost seems outrageous, but that will change with technology. I don’t have any idea about whether doing it is a good practice. Should we, if we could, bring back a dinosaur? Aside from whether they could survive in a modern world for any length of time, whether is a “good” thing for man to do is a very difficult problem. The plain fact is that if it can be done, it probably will be done.
Thorny issues for a new year, and all before my second cup of coffee this morning.
If humans are directly responsible for significant habitat pertubation that leads to a species demise and but have the opportunity, the skill, and the will to mitigate this, I think it is incumbent upon us to try.
I write this knowing full well that the people of Tanzania deserve power, proper sewage and sanitation systems, and clean potable water for all. And hopefully the government will make this a priority and insure that the funding is properly targeted to this goal. As the author wrote there are “many, many, waterfalls”. Other hydroelectric power projects might have been, or would be, better suited to minimize loss of endemic biodiversity.
Remember the old adage: “Sorry doesn’t fix the lamp”.
There are many inaccuracies presented in this article. I (Jennifer Pramuk, quoted in this blog) never stated that the misting mitigation project cost “millions” by itself. Curious readers can access the original NY Times article to read this particular quote and the original article for themselves:
From AA: The original article is linked above, and I feel it’s still a fair statement.
Moreover, the author is incorrect in stating that “it was not Tanzania that saved the toad”. On the contrary, the Lower Kihansi Environmental Programme other branches of the Tanzanian government and other partners have worked tirelessly collaboratively on this project for nearly a decade. True, that at the time of the Kihansi spray toad’s abrupt decline, the Wildlife Conservation Society stepped in through its in country program to help rescue the toad by bringing an assurance colony to the Bronx Zoo; however, without this long-standing and fruitful partnership, the reintroduction would not have happened.
From AA: As with most conservation “partners” these were organizations that were created or at the very least motivated to creation by foreign funds. They were not indigenous African groups.
Finally, the blog entry was posted on 21 December 2012, but states that the toads were introduced 10 days ago. This also is incorrect as the toads have been in the Gorge for at least two months and even prior to that as a soft release. From AA: Stand corrected. There are other inaccuracies presented as well (e.g., that the overly “pure” water in the U.S. killed the captive toads??).
As someone who worked on this project for four years, participated in the Population Habitat Viability Assessment in 2007 and helped develop the reintroduction guidelines at an international meeting in Tanzania, I also would offer that the millions spent on this project is justified from the standpoint that it helped inform numerous other initiatives focused on amphibian conservation. In addition to saving a species, the program helped build a viable amphibian conservation capacity and livelihoods in Tanzania, and formed a broad platform for valuable ex situ amphibian research. In my opinion, the funding expended has been well justified.
I am always weary of the press; however, this blog is a particularly egregious example of “factual” journalism.
From AA: Thanks to Jennifer for her reply and corrections. And like most blogs, I apologize for the minutiae of factual inaccuracies. The central question remains, however. I’m absolutely certain the misting machine will fail at some point. And in the unprecedented possibility that it didn’t, the “millions” that Jennifer was quoted as saying in the NYTimes just strikes me as unjustified.
The ongoing restoration of the Kihansi Gorge has indeed been costly but it is neither possible to attribute this price tag entirely to the reintroduction of a single species, nor appropriate to question the importance of a single species due to its size and taxonomy. This is separate from the multitude of issues regarding how such projects help to employ local people, build capacity, raise awareness and stimulate local environmental stewardship. The mist habitat within the Kihansi Gorge was a habitat entirely unique within the Udzungwa Mountains, and the Kihansi Spray Toad is just one representative of an entire community of organisms that benefitted from the perpetual “rainfall” that existed prior to construction of the dam. Prior to the dam’s construction, the enormous cloud of mist created by the Kihansi waterfall was easily spotted from an airplane and aerial surveys confirm that no other waterfall in the Udzungwas creates a habitat that is even remotely similar in scale. Biologists with decades of experience in the Udzungwas are convinced that no other populations of Kihansi spray toad exist, unfortunately. Although restoration of the gorge is not solely relevant to reintroduction of the spray toad, we propose that it would be worth it even if it was. In the words of eminent biologist E. O. Wilson, it is the little things that run the world. It is a common misconception that only large species are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems and promoting the environmental services, such as fresh water and regulation of pathogens, that all species, including our own, depend upon. More often than not, it may be the smallest members of food webs that function as keystone species, and the loss of these individual species can be catastrophic and unpredictable. Unfortunately, the resources do not exist to conduct the studies that would entirely unravel what members of food webs are critical to the maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Consequently, it behooves us to save all the pieces to avoid far greater costs in the future. It is true that the misting system will need constant management and a steady supply of replacement parts. Importantly, the species populations will not immediately crash should the misting system fail. It is a relatively simple gravity-fed misting system that can be repaired by the managers that visit the site daily.