Hope for the Golden Frog of Madagascar
The mournful calls of a group of indri, the largest of over 100 species of lemur, served as a delightful wake-up call for our first morning in the small eastern Madagascar village of Andasibe. We had arrived the evening before after a two-day trip from San Diego via Washington, D.C., South Africa and the Malagasy capitol of Antananarivo.
A long way to go for sure, but hearing the indri traverse the rain forest and making the acquaintance of a colorful day gecko gliding along the cabin wall, cured any grumpiness associated with extended travel.
Of course, for a zoo scientist and veterinarian, I couldn’t be grumpy for long on my first visit to Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island with an unparalleled diversity of habitats and an otherworldly flora and fauna. I was also feeling very privileged to be invited to assist the staff of the Association Mitsinjo Amphibian Breeding Facility with a very important group of golden mantella frogs. Founded in 2011, the facility has a staff of eight dedicated and extremely knowledgeable technicians working passionately to conserve their country’s unique and beautiful frogs.
The golden mantella Mantella aurantiaca is an endangered species with brilliant coloration that unfortunately makes it a target for collection in the international pet trade.
However, this is just one of this species’ worries as habitat dwindles because of deforestation, agriculture, and mining. The Association Mitsinjo facility is a refuge for 25 breeding groups of golden mantellas displaced by a mining project. As a testament to the great care they have received, the mantellas have bred successfully in captivity and it is nearing time to return many of the offspring to new locations in the wild.
Our role on this 10-day trip to Andasibe was to assess the health of the Association Mitsinjo mantellas before their return to the wild. We also provided hands-on training to technicians and a mining company veterinarian on techniques to detect parasites and postmortem examination for the diagnosis of disease. To help us in our health assessment, we brought a mobile molecular biology laboratory that allows us to do sophisticated DNA tests out of a suitcase in remote locations.
As is often the case with trips far from the comforts of well-equipped laboratories in the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, some improvisation was required. Our fears that delicate chemicals needed for our molecular tests hadn’t survived the long trip proved unfounded and our hotel manager was a good sport about allowing us to use the refrigerator in the bar.
However, we were relieved to have brought a roll of duct tape when a combination of electrical adapters to hook up to the local plugs proved to be cumbersome. Finally, a cyclone passed nearby bringing rain and power outages. Duct tape, patience, and flexibility are the essential elements for successful laboratory work in the tropics.
Madagascar was a powerful place to visit. Never in my travels had I seen such a stark contrast between abundant wildlife and areas depleted of natural resources. The nickel and cobalt collected from the mines are used globally in every aspect of our societies. This was pointed out to me as I used the latest tablet computer to record laboratory data, an appropriate reminder of the need to be mindful of our consumption.
For now we are happy to report that the golden mantellas of Association Mitsinjo received a clean bill of health and soon will be ready to inhabit new ponds adjacent to the mine site, providing hope for the survival of this disappearing species.
Allan Pessier, D.V.M., Senior Scientist, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research