I’ve kindled a lifelong passion for Latin America, and having spent 11 years in the region, I came away with a love of all things Latin – particularly the rainforests and their frogs.
I managed a volunteer programme in the Amazon that involved, among other things, amphibian surveys. With the chance to see so many frogs close up, I became fascinated by them and loved hearing their evening songs, as they joined in the rainforest’s incredible nocturnal chorus.
So I was really happy when Robin Moore – the award-winning photographer behind a stunning book called In search of lost frogs (Bloomsbury Publishing) – agreed to answer my questions about photography, conservation and his search for some of the world’s most elusive amphibians. Robin is the co-founder of – and a conservation officer with – the Amphibian Survival Alliance, and he’s a great champion for these enigmatic and often under-appreciated creatures.
What inspired you to launch an expedition in search of ‘lost’ frogs
I was feeling a little down in the dumps about the depressing decline and extinction of amphibian species around the world, when the news of a rediscovered species in Australia caught my attention. It was one of a few species that had reappeared after years or decades without trace, and it made me wonder how many more could be out there.
Then, during a meeting with some of my colleagues from the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group, we hatched a plan to compile a list of the ‘most wanted’ species. I reached out to over 500 experts for nominations. They had many opinions about what should and should not constitute a ‘lost’ species. But I managed to compile a list that soon hit the 100 mark, and I made a poster of the ‘top 10 most wanted’. The idea seemed to capture people’s imaginations and over the following months it snowballed into a massive coordinated search for lost amphibian species in over 20 countries.
What were the biggest challenges involved in photographing the frogs?
The biggest challenge was finding these creatures, as they’re so elusive and so rarely photographed. Some of our target species we simply never found. Even once we had found our subjects there were challenges to photographing them. One of the main ones was the weather: weather conditions conducive to frogs are not generally conducive to photography. In Costa Rica my camera died after a week in saturated air. In Israel I tried to photograph fire salamanders at dawn in the pouring rain (the only time they emerge is during or after rain) – a small black umbrella perched precariously above my camera and flash.
Photographing amphibians in the wild always seems to involve a degree of improvisation – but many of my favourite shots are the result of such improvisations. The danger, when you find a formula that works and repeat it, is that your creativity is stifled. The occasional spanner in the works can be very good for creativity.
How do you feel your photography benefits the conservation of these species?
I think photography allows others to appreciate the beauty and diversity of frogs that they may not otherwise be aware even existed. A photograph, and the story behind the subject, can also allow us to connect with the frog on an emotional level. I often like to capture images that bring us eye-to-eye with the frogs, allowing us to explore and read their expressions – to wonder what they are thinking or feeling. I think connecting people with these vulnerable creatures is the first step in promoting their protection – people need to feel some sort of emotional reaction to their loss.
Which of the incredible locations had the most incidences of lost frogs, and what do you think has caused more loss in that location?
Colombia has a high number of lost frogs – none of the target species were found there, and 22 species remain lost. Many of these are the victims of the deadly chytrid fungus that has wiped out entire species around the world. Colombia holds the dubious honour of harbouring the highest number of threatened amphibian species of any country. Many species also live in forests that have been largely off-limits to biologists in decades because of armed conflict – this has contributed to the lack of any recent records of them.
Some people may wonder why it matters if we lose frogs. What are the implications of their loss? And does anything give you hope when you consider the status of amphibians today?
The loss of amphibians means different things to different people. To some, frogs provide an important service controlling insects – crop pests and disease vectors. These people will notice when frogs are gone because the insects will increase in abundance. But for me, their real value comes from the emotional and intellectual enrichment that amphibians have brought to my life – from childhood until now. They were really my entry point into the natural world. What saddens me most about losing amphibians is the thought that my son will grow into a world that is more impoverished and less fascinating. To me, this is reason enough for everyone to care.
What gives me hope is that nature can surprise us when it’s given the chance. I have seen this with my own eyes. In Israel, thanks to the restoration of its habitat, the hula painted frog reappeared 55 years after its wetland home was drained. I believe we just need to start respecting and appreciating the value of nature before we reach a tipping point.
What can we all do to conserve frogs?
For those interested in becoming involved in frog conservation I would recommend hopping onto the website of the Amphibian Survival Alliance – the world’s largest partnership for amphibian conservation – and connecting with them on social media to become part of the conversation and the movement to save amphibians. You can also join a local group doing frog surveys or restoring habitat for frogs. There are so many ways – it depends on your circumstances and motivation. I’d be happy to receive emails from anyone who is interested in becoming involved.
Where in the world would you like to continue the search for lost frogs?
There are many places. In July I went to the remote forests of north-west Guatemala to search for Jackson’s climbing salamander, one of our top 10 most wanted species. I would love to search for the gastric-brooding frog in Australia and Dutoit’s torrent frog in Kenya. I would also love to continue the search for lost frogs in Colombia (the Mesopotamia beaked toad remains high on my list) and in Costa Rica, where the golden toad remains the holy grail of lost frogs – finding that would be beyond words.
You can find out more about Robin’s work at: www.robindmoore.com
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