Recent decades have not been kind to amphibian populations throughout the world. As amphibian declines and extinctions keep escalating at an unprecedented rate, it comes as a breath of fresh air when something is discovered that was feared to be lost forever.
In February, I began working on a pangolin conservation project in the Misahohé region of Western Togo, in West Africa, with Justin Miller of Pangolin Conservation. As a part of this project, we also set out to locate and document a population of critically endangered Togo slippery frogs that had been happened upon during a previous search of the area. These frogs previously ranged across the highlands of Eastern Ghana and Western Togo and are now listed as Critically Endangered. After several years with no records of surviving populations, several agencies labeled them as “possibly extinct” in the country of Togo, and maybe even extinct definitely.
Togo slippery frogs (Conraua derooi) belong to an ancient family that diverged from their fellow amphibians approximately 70 million years ago. This family includes six different species of Conraua, which all come from sub-Saharan Africa and includes the Goliath frog, the largest extant frog in the world.
Togo slippery frogs are heavily dependent upon fast-flowing streams with large rocks and pristine water. Because of their close relationship with water, they are very sensitive to the ecological impacts that are occurring throughout much of West Africa. Deforestation and pervasive burning of the landscape for oil palm plantations and lumber is a common sight and has led to much of the slippery frogs’ habitat disappearing.
We succeeded in locating the frogs we were looking for, but it was not as promising as we had initially hoped. It became abundantly clear that this area was frequented by locals who would guide tourists to see the waterfall at its center. The entire landscape had been rearranged to make it more functional as a tourist site and the habitat was quickly becoming less suitable for the frogs that called it home. With this in mind, we set off in search of more suitable habitat that could potentially contain a more stable population.
While later walking a dirt road, Justin made note of a small ravine on one of the mountains in the distance. Through the thick haze that permeates the air, a small patch of green was visible that contrasted ever so slightly with the surrounding environment. Togo had experienced several months of drought and the rains had still not yet come, so this small vein of life hinted at the presence of a permanent water source.
The next few hours were spent finding our way through palm plantations, thick vegetation, and burned wastelands of property that had been cleared just days before. Eventually we came upon a stream that was barely a trickle, yet as we neared the base of the mountain it began to grow faster and wider. Burnt landscapes gradually gave way to green and as we climbed we found ourselves in a relatively untouched Eden.
A towering waterfall with a pool at its base remained hidden in the rough topography that made it too difficult for agriculture to take hold. Among the moss covered rocks, we finally found a population of Togo slippery frog tadpoles swimming undisturbed. Unlike the other population that was found earlier, this area seemed much more stable and there is great potential to protect it. By finding a way to safeguard this waterfall and the surrounding forest, we would be saving not only this critically endangered frog, but also a wide variety of other species of special concern.
Our work doesn’t stop here, though. Many of the plants and animals in this forest are potentially endemic and we hope to return in the near future to study them more thoroughly. Measures are also being taken to protect this area and establish a conservation strategy with local and international partners, paving the way for future understanding and stewardship of Togo’s biodiversity.
Alex Wiles is a conservation photographer and environmental educator based out of Omaha, Nebraska. His interest in conservation initiatives takes him around the world where he documents the challenges faced by wildlife and the work of those who wish to protect it.
Justin Miller is the founder of Pangolin Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to conservation, public education, and research of pangolins with an emphasis on African populations. His multifaceted conservation efforts also extend beyond pangolins to a wide array of underrepresented species.
Alex Wiles Photography Website: www.awilesphoto.com
Pangolin Conservation Website: www.pangolinconservation.org