Amphibian Action: uniting for Frogs

by Jeff Dawson - November 28, 2014

frogSitting in Ivato airport, Madagascar awaiting my flight to Mauritius is giving me time to reflect on the last hectic, at times intense but enjoyable and productive week. I’m referring to the three day workshop to develop a new Conservation Strategy for the Amphibians of Madagascar – ACSAM2 .

As the name suggests this is the second such meeting with the first ACSAM taking place 6 years ago and led to a national action plan for the conservation of amphibians. Last week sought to review progress and critically identify and update actions to safeguard the unique amphibians of Madagascar in a strategic coordinated way. The potential impact of chytrid on Madagscar’s frogs and continued habitat loss made it very timely

Given the importance of such a plan Durrell co-funded and co-organised the meeting as part of our Madagascar amphibian programme. Over 60 scientists, researchers and officials from 12 countries attended the meeting at Centre ValBio (CVB) just outside Ranomafana NP. Getting here involved quite a mammoth journey – 9 hours in fact from the capital Tana through the high plateau. You can tell when you are approaching Ranomafana by the change in the landscape. The hours of open landscapes, paddy fields, red earth, patchy trees gives way green, foliage rich road sides.

Travelling down in the trusty Durrell Land Rover myself, Tsanta, Lance and Richard arrived a good few hours before the others in their vintage buses. This gave time to ensure all was in place for their arrival. Though any worries about how things would work logistically were quickly laid to rest by the efficiency and help of CVB’s excellent staff. Led by Eileen and John, they did an excellent job throughout the week ensuring the workshop ran smoothly and we were all well looked after, fed and watered. As the other participants rolled in at gone 9pm there was time to hand out welcome bags, grab some food from the buffet laid on before grabbing a much welcomed bed and sleep.

The workshop itself was spread over 3 days and combined plenary lectures from guest speakers, short presentations from researchers and round table discussions to develop new, future actions for the national action plan. The scene for the meeting was set by Franco Andreone, the initiator of ACSAM and widely known as the Frogman in Madagascar before Phil Bishop from the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) gave an overview of global amphibian conservation and the role of the ASA.

The next three days focussed separately on conservation and research, the invasive toad issue, captive breeding and emerging infectious diseases. It is this latter issue that Durrell’s amphibian work in Madagascar has so far been focussed and insights into the evolutionary ecology of chytrid fungus and how this could inform conservation strategies in Madagascar were given by Matt Fisher from Imperial College. Reid Harris of James Madison University gave an overview of potential mitigation actions for chytrid with particular focus on his area of research in Madagascar: the development of probiotics and finally there was perspective from Panama on what happened there with the arrival of chytrid and the response to it from Brian Gratwicke of the Smithsonian Institute.

These plenaries and subsequent short presentations gave a great basis for discussions on actions to deal with serious emerging disease threats in Madagascar. A key resolution from these was the urgent need to develop and put in place at Government level a rapid response strategy for infectious disease both for detection and in the event of any future mass die offs.

Given the potential threat posed by chytrid and that there is currently no mitigation method the role captive breeding can play is especially important. Following updates from global zoo work on Malagasy amphibians and updates from the two in-country facilities at Andasibe and Ivoloina it was agreed that an updated Amphibian Ark conservation needs assessment be conducted which will highlight key areas for research and enable the development of a specific ex situ action plan for Madagascar.

After a packed three days the meeting was closed by the Director of Ranomafana NP and the Secretarie General of Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests and a treat for the participants with special night walk inside the park that our hosts CVB had arranged with the Director of Ranomafana NP. This was eagerly accepted by many though after three long days past midnight I chose a (relatively) early night option.

The Saturday did allow for people to unwind and reconnect with nature with walks in the park and for me personally it was fantastic to escape the walls of the centre (however nice they are) and get into the forest. You could almost feel the tension and intensity draining away. The night finished off with a closing feast accompanied by fantastic live music from a local band that led to much dancing and merriment.

So it was ACSAM 2 came to close. In all a timely and important meeting that produced a number of solid actions, new and strengthened partnerships for the conservation of Madagsacar’s unique amphibian fauna. Now all that remained was another 9 hour journey back to Tana, some with sorer heads and a small task of writing the plan up!

One quick final word and a special thank you to our amazing vet Tsanta who did a fantastic job with getting things sorted, arranging journalists to attend and ensuring the Ministers were all catered for. You can see the national malagasy TV pieces (and Tsanta!) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCiKKS-dBh0