With the formation of the Atelopus Survival Initiative (ASI)–a new alliance of more than 40 organizations from 13 countries–comes a new day for harlequin toads, the jewels of South and Central America’s forests and creeks and a group of amphibians hardest hit by the deadly chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd).
While amphibian researchers and conservationists have worked for many years to save harlequin toads (which make up the Atelopus genus) and groups of species in individual countries, the ASI is bringing them together for the first time to pool the resources, decades of experience and knowledge necessary to prevent the extinction of the entire genus of harlequin toads across the region where these species still survive.
“As an incredibly diverse group of amphibians facing a number of threats, harlequin toads require innovative solutions coming from a diverse group of individuals and organizations with different expertise, knowledge and capacities,” said Lina Valencia, ASI founder, co-coordinator of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group Atelopus Task Force and Andean countries coordinator for Re:wild, one of the primary ASI conveners. “More than ever before, we need a constellation of champions working together to bring harlequin toads back from the brink of extinction. The ASI underscores the vital need to implement on-the-ground conservation actions that will mitigate the main threats to this beautiful group of amphibians.”
Over the past few decades, many harlequin toad species have suffered severe population declines and extinctions throughout their range. Today, of the 94 harlequin toad species that have been assessed by the IUCN, 83 percent are threatened with extinction, while about 40% of Atelopus species have disappeared from their known homes and have not been seen since the early 2000s, despite great efforts to find them. Four harlequin toad species are already classified as extinct, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but this number is likely higher.
The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) causes the lethal disease chytridiomycosis, which has resulted in amphibian declines all around the world, including in South and Central America, Australia and the western United States. Although Bd may likely be the primary driver of these declines, a number of other threats are exacerbating the precipitous drops in population numbers. This includes habit destruction and degradation (as the result of animal agriculture, logging, mining and infrastructure development), the introduction of invasive species such as the rainbow trout that prey on harlequin toad tadpoles, pollution, illegal collection for the pet trade, and the effects of climate change.
The ASI and its members, including governments, local communities and Indigenous peoples, will collaboratively address each of these threats–and new ones as they arise–across the genus’s full range, taking into account the social, political and cultural realities of each of the 11 countries where harlequin toads are found.
“With their beautiful songs and unique lifestyles, amphibians are among the most extraordinary animals on Earth, and among them, harlequin toads stand out for their amazing colors,” said Luis Fernando Marin da Fonte, coordinator of the ASI and director of partnerships and communications for the Amphibian Survival Alliance. “But these colorful and delicate jewels are becoming increasingly rarer. Harlequin toads must be protected not only because of their beauty and uniqueness, but also because of their intrinsic value and biological, ecological and even cultural importance.”
The initiative’s newly developed Harlequin Toad (Atelopus) Conservation Action Plan (HarleCAP) provides the roadmap for conserving and restoring harlequin toads as a genus and their habitat. The action plan’s goals, which ASI aims to achieve by 2041 (the 200th anniversary of the description of the genus Atelopus), include:
- developing and implementing innovative methods to mitigate chytrid’s impacts on harlequin toad populations and better understanding why some species are less susceptible to the effects of chytrid;
- protecting and restoring harlequin toads’ forests and watersheds;
- creating and maintaining conservation breeding programs;
- searching for species that are lost to science and filling in other gaps in scientific knowledge about harlequin toads;
- sharing stories that will transform harlequin toads into symbols of hope for the region and the world and a flagship for conservation success, and demonstrate a commitment to the conservation of harlequin toads;
- ensuring the Atelopus conservation network has the technical, logistical, and financial support to secure the long-term conservation of harlequin toads
“The establishment of collaborative initiatives at the international and regional level is essential to coordinate efforts and obtain tangible results that have an efficient and real impact on the conservation of an endangered species,” said Gina Della Togna of the Universidad Interamericana de Panamá, Panamá. “The Atelopus Survival Initiative is a concrete example, which not only aims to conserve one species, but an entire genus, perhaps the most threatened by the global amphibian extinction crisis.”
Harlequin toads are found from Costa Rica in the north to Bolivia in the south, and Ecuador in the west and French Guiana to the east. They are known as the jewels of South and Central America in part because of their beautiful and varied colors, which range from orange, green, yellow, brown, black, red, and sometimes even purple. They are celebrated in a number of Latin American cultures, including Indigenous cultures, and across entire countries, like in Panama, where the national animal is the Panamanian golden toad.
Like other amphibians, harlequin toads support healthy ecosystems. Their tadpoles depend on clean water and, because of this, the presence of harlequin toads indicates better quality water in an ecosystem, while their decline or absence is often the first sign of an ecosystem in trouble.
“Protecting and restoring harlequin toads and their habitats will also benefit the species that share the ecosystems in which they live and that provide water to tens of millions of people, and ultimately all life on Earth,” Valencia said. “And we’re hoping that the ASI will be a successful model that conservationists can emulate for other groups of threatened species.”
The Atelopus Survival Initiative includes national and international conservation groups, zoos, captive breeding centers, academic institutions, governments and local communities. Its current members represent the following organizations: Amphibian Ark, Amphibian Survival Alliance, Asociación Pro Fauna Silvestre – Ayacucho, Bioparque Municipal Vesty Pakos, Bolivian Amphibian Initiative, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Centro de Conservación de Anfibios AMARU, Centro Jambatu de Investigación y Conservación de Anfibios/Fundación Jambatu, CORBIDI, DoTS, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center Foundation, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Florida International University, Fort Worth Zoo, Fundación Atelopus, Fundación Zoológica de Cali, Universidad del Tolima (GHEE), Grupo de Trabajo Atelopus Venezuela, Image Conservation, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Instituto Venezolano de, Investigaciones Científicas, Ministerio del Ambiente de Perú, MUBI (Museo de Biodiversidad del Perú), Parque Explora, Parque Nacional Natural Puracé, Photo Wildlife Tours, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Re:wild, San Diego State University, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Trier University, Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad de Costa Rica, Universidad de los Andes, Universidad del Tolima, Universidad del Magdalena, Universidade Federal do Pará, Universidad Nacional, Universidad Interamericana de Panamá, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará, University of Nevada, Reno, University of Notre Dame, University of Pittsburgh, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), WCS Colombia, Zoológico Cuenca Bioparque Amaru