Saving southern Africa’s amphibians

Amphibians are the most threatened vertebrates on Earth, with 41% of species assessed by the IUCN Red List at risk of extinction. Furthermore, amphibian populations are declining on every continent where they are found. These declines make conserving amphibians a high priority. Out of 135 frog species in South Africa, almost 30% of these are threatened.

What are amphibians?

The word ‘amphibian’ means ‘double life’ because these animals usually live part of their lives in water and part on land. Even though most amphibians have simple lungs, they use their thick skin for breathing, which is why amphibians need to stay moist. There are three types of amphibians: frogs and toads, newts and salamanders, and caecilians. Frogs are the only type of amphibian found in southern Africa. As larvae, amphibians have gills and live in water. However, as adults, they have lungs and breathe air. Most amphibians have smooth, moist skin without scales and unshelled eggs.

Why are amphibians important?

There are more than 8,480 different types of amphibians around the world. Nearly 7,500 of these are frogs. Amphibians have been around for a very long time and have successfully inhabited most parts of the world (except where it is too cold or isolated). Their dependence on freshwater make them good indicator species – if frogs are not present or there are few frogs in an ecosystem, it is a sign that our most precious resource – water – is in trouble. Health Frogs = Healthy Humans.

Amphibians are also a critical link in the food chain – they are a key ‘pest’ controller, as most frogs eat insects. As such, they are valuable for controlling insects like mosquitos and flies, protecting us from diseases and protecting our food. On the other hand, amphibians are a food source for many other animals, including birds, reptiles, and even humans.

The glands in amphibian skin produce substances that protect frogs against disease and deter predators. Investigating the antimicrobial properties of amphibian skin glands is an area of promise for medical and pharmaceutical applications.

Threats to frogs

Frogs in southern Africa are threatened by habitat destruction, alteration, and fragmentation, pollution, the pet trade, and conflict with humans.

Habitat loss

Frogs don’t only occur in wetlands and streams. Most species occur in our forest, grassland, and fynbos biomes. We must protect terrestrial (land) and aquatic environments to conserve various species in their different life stages.

Pollution

Chemicals from pesticides, heavy metals, acidification, and fertilisers, are responsible for amphibian declines. These chemicals can affect growth, development, and behaviour, leading to developmental and behavioural defects and weakening the immune system.

Climate change poses a potentially serious threat to frogs in southern Africa. Because frogs are sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture and can’t easily move to areas with better conditions, they can easily be eradicated from areas that are getting warmer. They are very dependent on water, which plays a critical role in their reproduction, lifecycle, activity levels, and migration ability.

What the EWT does to save frogs?

The EWT’s Threatened Amphibian Programme is saving threatened frogs and reptiles by reducing threats to priority species and encouraging people to appreciate frogs. We protect habitats, improve the freshwater management, assist to educate and train people, and promote other awareness campaigns.

The EWT is the only South African NGO focusing full-time on saving frogs. We use threatened species as flagships to:

  • Monitor frog species
  • Monitor the health of frog habitats (which provide water to humans)
  • Protect frog habitats – also important for food and water provision
  • Manage and restore frog habitats
  • Promote positive changes in behaviour by educating people on the importance of frogs and their habitats
  • Annual Leap Day for Frogs campaign to raise awareness for frogs

We run five projects across three provinces (the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal), focusing on the following flagship animals:

  1. Pickersgill’s Reed Frog (Hyperolius pickersgilli) – Endangered

Shows the Table Mountain Ghost Frog
Table Mountain Ghost Frog

  • Amathole Toad (Vandijkophrynus amatolicus) – Critically Endangered

  • Table Mountain Ghost Frog (Heleophryne rosei) – Critically Endangered

  • Kloof Frog (Natalobatrachus bonebergi) – Endangered

  • Micro Frog (Microbatrachella capensis) – Critically Endangered

  • Moonlight Mountain Toadlet (Capensibufo selenophos) – Critically Endangered

  • Rough Moss Frog (Arthroleptella rugosa) – Critically Endangered

  • Western Leopard Toad (Sclerophrys pantherina) – Endangered

  • Albany Adder (Bitis albanica) – Endangered (we included reptiles under our portfolio in 2018 and are currently running a project to secure habitat for this species in the Eastern Cape.

While focusing on conserving species and habitats, we also do innovative research to understand frogs and their ecosystems, and work with the communities in these landscapes. In this way, we align with the EWT’s Strategic objectives: Saving species, conserving habitats, and benefitting people.

Recent stories of success for frogs in southern Africa

Monitoring species

We monitor two Endangered frog species in KwaZulu-Natal using apps, acoustic recording devices, and camera traps to determine the conservation status of our priority frogs Furthermore, we also measure how effective our work is.

Pickersgill’s Reed Frog (Endangered)

Pickersgill’s Reed Frog (PRF) has been recorded at 49 sites covering 1,660 hectares, a notable increase in the number of known sites since 2008, when the species was sighted in only ten places.

Kloof Frog (Endangered)

The EWT developed a Survey 123 app to collect information to help us monitor the Endangered Kloof Frog. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team used camera traps to observe the breeding behaviour of the Kloof Frog, as they lay unique egg clumps. In this way, recorded both males and females present from laying to hatching and we are now testing this monitoring method with the Table Mountain Ghost Frog and the Western Leopard Toad in the Western Cape.

Table Mountain Ghost Frog (Critically Endangered)z

We are observing the Table Mountain Ghost Frog and its habitat, including water quality monitoring, flow monitoring, SASS assessments, in-stream, and riparian monitoring. Read more here.

Monitoring habitats

The EWT and partners do wetland and stream assessments and Ecological Goods and Services Quality Assessments (EGSQA) at KZN project sites and on Table Mountain to monitor the ecological state of these habitats. We have recorded an improvement in the quality of the natural resources and ecological function of the Adams Mission study site, where we have been clearing alien vegetation since 2018.

Protecting habitats

We are using the biodiversity stewardship process to legally protect approximately 15,000 hectares of habitat for frogs and reptiles.

Managing and restoring habitats

We have developed five Environmental Management Plans for sites we are protecting. These plans address threats and maintain functional habitats.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the EWT hired 40 local people between 2020 and 2021 to clear alien invasive plants from four sites where the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog is found. There are currently two clearing teams in Adams Mission, one in Groutville and one in Nyoni. Between 2020 and 2021, the teams cleared over 270 hectares.

Social change and outreach

Frogs in the classroom

The EWT adapted its popular Frogs in the Classroom series for online learning, where students or teachers can access the lessons on YouTube. The lessons include frog Anatomy, Habitats, and Threats and Conservation

Who we work with

Our work would not be possible without support from our funders, including the Rainforest Trust, IUCN, Synchronicity Earth, and Whitley Fund for Nature, and the wide range of partners we work with on a local, national, and international level. These partnerships range from other NGOs to research institutions to provincial conservation agencies. For example, we partner with the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) and Dr Jeanne Tarrant is the regional (southern Africa) chair for the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG), and co-chair of the IUCN ASG Habitat Protection Working Group.

The EWT is a Community Cinema partner of the Nature Environment Wildlife Filmmakers (NEWF), which has given us an excellent platform from which to screen environmental documentaries at our Isipingo and Adams Mission sites in eThekwini. These areas are both home to the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog. In total, we have reached over 475 community members of all ages who have attended monthly screenings since 2019.

In 2021 we partnered with the Cape Leopard Trust (CLT) on a project entitled “A tale of two Leopards”, looking at the Endangered Western Leopard Toad (WLT) and the Cape Leopard. In May, we met with CLT in the Overberg to discuss the project scope and hold a stakeholder workshop for the WLT Biodiversity Management Plan.

For more information, contact Dr Jeanne Tarrant

Leap Day for Frogs

We celebrate Leap Day for Frogs every February to raise awareness of the threats to frogs. People often dislike or fear frogs and Leap Day for Frogs is a chance to improve people’s attitudes by teaching them about how important they are. There are 125 frog species in South Africa, of which a third are threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, disease, and climate change.

2021 © Endangered Wildlife Trust with help from the Artifact Team