New frontiers for frogs in the Dominican Republic

by Jeff Dawson - August 1, 2014

The Western Caribbean, centred on the Greater Antillean islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, is of global importance for amphibian conservation with over 90% of the regions amphibian species threatened with extinction – the highest anywhere in the world. It will be of little surprise then that it is one of Durrell’s priority regions for our Saving Amphibians From Extinction Programme.

As such I have just returned from a first project development trip to the Dominican Republic to meet prospective in-country project partners, get a first-hand understanding of the conservation challenges and opportunities for amphibian conservation in the country and practice my dodgy Spanish.

First, a very quick overview of the Dominican Republic, or DR for short. Comprising the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola next to Haiti, DR has a very diverse biological heritage in part due to the islands varied topography, with a number of cordilleras ranging over 2,000masl. This is reflected in the amphibian fauna of Hispaniola which currently numbers 72 native species, of which 45 have been recorded from DR of which 29 are globally threatened.

After an initial few days in the hot and humid capital of Santo Domingo, I travelled out to the southernmost cordillera, called the Sierra de Baharuco in the south-west of the country, with Grupo Jaragua, a local conservation NGO and associated herpetologists.

Driving west negotiating the ‘unique’ driving practices of the local population and cows in the road takes you through arid scrub thorn habitat home to two species of threatened iguanas but not many amphibians. The green sided mountains of the Sierra de Baharuco to the north though indicate more frog friendly habitat.

The Sierra de Baharuco is the DR part of the southern cordillera that continues into Haiti as the Massif de la Selle. Rising to over 2,000m the Baharuco’s habitat changes from lowland moist, broadleaf forest to high altitude cloud pine forest and has a rich frog fauna with a number of globally threatened species and is a very important area for conservation in the country.

After overnighting in the hot coastal town of Pedernales we travelled inland up the Sierra tracking the Haitian border. Driving through this landscape, the major threats to the regions fauna are apparent. Expanding agriculture at lower and mid-elevations has led to a fragmented mosaic like landscape with numerous small patches of intact native forest interspersed with familiar tropical crops such as bananas and corn with avocado at higher elevations. These patches of forest, though small (some little more than a few hundred m2) can still contain a surprisingly high diversity of amphibian species and therefore crucial to their conservation.

Entering the Parc Nacional de Baharuco, agricultural activity is still in evidence and as you ascend in altitude you enter the pine forest where extraction for charcoal rather than agriculture is the main threat to the forest. Standing on grey limestone, shrouded in cloud and dropping below 10°C at night (so thankful for my woolly hat) these forests are pretty spectacular and despite the cold and elevation still echo with the calls of frogs as those below.

The three days I spent in the Sierra along with the rest of my trip, talking with various people and getting to see first-hand the country provided me with a great opportunity to really find out about the amphibian conservation situation in DR. What became clear speaking to my knowledgeable travelling companions is that whilst great work has been done over the last 4 years though the Government funded Proyecto RANA, which was led by Grupo Jaragua, detailed information regarding species distribution, population status, ecology and life histories, especially for many of the threatened Eleutherodactylus species (the most numerous genus in DR) remains poorly known and understood.

This information is of course essential if you want to develop and implement effective conservation management measures and is what our future work in DR in partnership with Grupo Jaragua and other local institutions will seek to address. Importantly we will also use this project to train and develop the herpetological knowledge and skills in country so that further work can be carried out.

No doubt as things develop I’ll write again to update on progress from the DR. Hasta luego!