Category Archives: Blog

DiscoverConservation interview published!

A few months ago I gave an interview to DiscoverConservation, a “social enterprise that aims to inspire optimism in conservation and support the next generation of conservation scientists”. They gather on their website stories from conservationists around the world, which you can read on their website. They also fundraise to sponsor the next generation of aspiring biologists.

Anyway, here’s the link to my interview, but make sure you check out the others also! 🙂


The weekend when The Jury’s Inn filled up with Herpetofauna workers

48 hours of fascinating talks, workshops and exciting chats with interesting people. This is what went on in Oxford last weekend, 7th-8th of February: Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2016 (HWM). I was lucky enough to be able to attend this amazing yearly event, where I was surrounded by really inspiring people.

Thanks to the cake and coffee reception first thing in the morning on Saturday, everyone forgot about the horrible weather encountered on the way and started chatting and pouring copious amounts of coffee in their cups. At reception, I received a name tag and the programme, which featured several talks and one workshop per day. After a few croissants and handshakes, the other delegates and I made our way to the main hall for the morning session of talks.


The welcome pack

Kicking off was Mr Ben Tapley, from the ZSL, presenting his and his team’s current work in China with the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). Chinese Giant Salamanders have been experiencing extreme declines mainly due to overexploitation: they are often consumed as a delicacy, and this has caused both their disappearance in the wild and the expansion of their farming industry. Therefore, survey work is carried out to discover more about the remaining population abundance, distribution and threats, and to set a long-term monitoring programme. But social work is also sorely needed, as farms are often in bad conditions, and the local perception of this animal usually is negative: they are commonly thought of as scary and ugly. By partnering with local organisations, this project is hopefully going to change the perception of Chinese Giant Salamanders to amazing animals which deserve protection.

Following Ben, Mr John Baker made our wandering imaginations return to the UK, where he has been monitoring adders in Norfolk for more than 10 years. Local habitat restoration impacted the adders, as they were not taken into account during the plans: however thanks to John’s data hopefully in the future management will consider protecting adder hibernation sites and areas around these during major habitat restorations.

Finally, right before the first workshop, Mr Paul Edgar and Mr Rob Cameron updated us on the recent changes in Natural England’s (NE) views, structure and projects, underlining NE’s major interest for new achievements on the ground. It is a time of great change due to an increase of licences granted, the feedback that the UK received on the British EPS, and other major changes within the Government. NE intends to have a greater focus on habitat provision (such as securing habitat for great crested newts), grant advice at earlier stages of developments, as well as targeting the efforts to where the risks are greatest. I was able to participate to their workshop which followed right after, where we discussed four main proposed licensing policy changes. These, if approved, could majourly influence surveying efforts needed, exclusion-trapping-relocating requirements as well as habitat compensation requirements.


Mr Paul Edgar talking about mitigation guidelines

After a tasty and well-needed lunch, another set of presentations got us back in the mood for more herpetofauna talk. From grass snakes monitoring, to toad night patrols in Kent, and a very thorough presentation on the aquatic invertebrates a pond surveyor is most likely to find, everyone’s eyes and ears remained fixed on the presenters all afternoon. Rob Gandola, from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, closed this last session with a witty talk about the recent, amazing work carried out by the Society and some students on North Bull Island, the heart of the newly designated Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Their citizen-science led monitoring project was able to identify the presence of both frogs and lizards on the island, and discover that their populations are healthy and breeding.  Some funny anecdotes, such as confused frogs hopping into the surf at night, made everyone leave the hall with a smile.

However, the first day of the HWM did certainly not end here. In the evening everyone gathered again for informal drinks, before suiting up (or not) and heading back to the main hall – which was in the meanwhile turned into a fancy dining hall. A three course meal (featuring my first sticky toffee pudding ever!), accompanied with great chats and banter really livened up the night. After an exhilarating herpetofauna-based (obviously) quiz, which included a hilarious masquerade round, a few more drinks and jokes, everything turned into a great party.


The masquerade round

The great party meant that Sunday morning was a bit of a rough start, but equally extremely interesting. The day started with the second workshop – which for me was on Reptile Surveying Guidelines. There were many consultants and experts in the workshop, which made it really valuable for me since I have very little experience in the field. We discussed pros and cons of different existing guidelines, as well as proposing our own ideas on what guidelines should include. After a second round of coffee and chocolate biscuits, we had two sessions of talks. In my opinion, the most interesting talk was Dr Jeremy Biggs‘ from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, which was on the use of eDNA analysis for detecting great crested newts. Last year the first successful national survey of these newts was completed succesfully. This methodology revealed itself to be very inexpensive and easy to use for volunteers as part of the PondNet project, through which almost 350 ponds were analysed – 25% of whuch were found hosting great crested newts. eDNA stands for “environmental DNA”, which is DNA that is released into the water by organisms from their skin, eggs and other means, and can be analysed to find out what organisms live in the body of water sampled. Volunteers are given a simple eDNA kit to collect water samples, which can then be sent to a lab for analysis. To date, eDNA cannot be used to evaluate abundance of organisms yet, but research in the topic is advancing quickly. The PondNet project is picking up again this year, and hopefully 2017, which will provide national trends as a basis for long term monitoring.

Other great talks and discussions continued for the rest of the day, until about 4PM, when we sadly had to start to pack up. It was such a wonderful and inspiring weekend! I particularly appreciated the diversity of people present, with the most varied backgrounds but unified by a common passion. Many thanks to ARG UK and ARC Trust and all the organisers of this amazing meeting, I definitely hope to be able to participate next year!

From the cookbook to the Red List: the unsustainable tradition of frog consumption

(originally posted on the MSc BCM blog)

The male moor frog turns from brown to blue during the mating season. The red-eyed tree frog has three eyelids. Marsupial frogs have their young developing in pouches. The goliath frog can weigh up to 3.25kg. Frogs exhibit an incredibly advanced level of parental care. In short, frogs are very cool.

Apart from being amazing, anurans (and generally, amphibians) are vital for the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. Being predators and prey, connecting land and water, they are a key part of the food chain and sustain a rich biodiversity. Amphibians are also natural pest controllers, eating insects that can be a problem for crops or cause widespread disease. Alarmingly, according to the IUCN “nearly one-third (32%) of the world’s amphibian species are known to bethreatened or extinct” and “at least 42 % of all species are declining in population, indicating that the number of threatened species can be expected to rise in the future”.

The main causes for this decline have been identified as habitat loss and diseases such as thechytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungal infection. Additionally, the international trade for frog meat is putting immense pressure on populations, especially of the larger-bodied species. Frogs are a gastronomic delicacy of many countries, including France, Greece, Vietnam and the USA, and they are consumed by the hundreds of millions every year. In many countries in Africaand Latin America wild frogs are still collected for local sustenance. However, in the last 20 years countries like Indonesia, China and Taiwan have become major exporters of alive and dead frogs around the world. Unfortunately the rates of trade are considered by experts asunsustainable.

Edible frog (Rana esculenta)

Historical records

For centuries frogs have been part of the cuisine of many cultures, such as the Greek and the Roman (teixeira et al. 2001). Even the Aztecs were consuming frogs. In 2013, a team ofarchaeologists digging in Wiltshire, UK, found remains of cooked frogs dating back 10,000 years – long before the first records in France, despite the stereotype! However, In the last century the United States have seen extensive declines in their anuran populations due to overexploitation. During the 60’s and 70’s, France also saw a collapse in its native frog populations, consequently banning their harvest, and starting to seek market supply from abroad. Bangladesh and India became the main exporters of frogs, until they also experienced a major stock collapse. This lead to the 1985 CITES Apendix II listing of two of the most internationally requested species, the green pond frog (Euphlyctis hexadactylus) and the Indian bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus). The listing preceded a total ban by these two countries on their exports a few years later, which allowed for frog population recovery.

Indian bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigetinus). Credit: Balaram Mahalder


The current situation

Nowadays Indonesia is the main exporter, with 5000 tonnes exported each year, and the EU is the largest importer followed by the USA. Between the main exported species we can find the giant Javan frog (Limnonectes microdon), and the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). However, the EU does not record the imports to the species level, and export labels are often incorrect. Especially considering many frogs are exported skinned and frozen. Therefore, it is challenging to understand the scope of the effects of this trade. Moreover, often the state of the population in the country of origin is unknown, which complicates the assessment. Warketin et al. (2008) have underlined a parallelism between fisheries collapses and the frogs trade. People should be learning from past mistakes and avoid overexploitation, however the trade is continuing on the same path: first Bangladesh and India, and now Indonesia. “Will the extinction dominos continue to fall?”, they ask.

Main suppliers to the EU 1999-2009 (Eurostat 2010)

Is farming the solution?

It doesn’t look like it. Farming has proven economically unsuccessful in a number of countries, therefore only marginally alleviating the pressure on wild populations. Farms also tend to favour the spread of infectious diseases or pathogens such as the chytrid fungus in geographically distant areas, due to the trade in live specimens. Moreover, farmed frogs from elsewhere have the potential of escaping and becoming invasive, such as the American bullfrog in California and Europe.

Mekong frog farm. Credit: RachTHeH

Banned or certified?

The CITES listing and the subsequent ban in frog trade in Bangladesh and India and the harvesting of alive frogs in France were effective in allowing local frog populations to recover. However, it is known that bans have strong limitations, especially when the trade has a very high economic return, and might fuel a black market. A control in frog trade is problematic because reliable data on frog populations is scarce. To start with: how do we set a sustainable quantity allowed to be traded, if we don’t even know how many frogs are there in the first place? And how do we monitor that the regulations are actually implemented, especially when many frogs are unidentifiable when traded (e.g. only legs arriving at shipping points)?

I also see another issue here. Frog consumption is an important part of many cultures, all around the globe. Imposing a ban on the international trade, as well as on the local harvest, could be seen as an unfair imposition from international bodies over national customs. However, it is also true that even very limited, local consumption has severely affected frog populations (e.g. purple Indian frog).

Warkentin et al. suggested a certification, which would provide information on the country of origin and on the population conservation status, to be checked at processing points. The authors recognise this as a potentially costly regulation, however they regard it as possibly the best way of monitoring populations and developing a sustainable industry. I find this a very interesting idea, at the realisation that a total ban might not be efficient in the long run.

Hasma, Chinese dessert made from the dried farry tissue found near frog fallopian tubes. Credit: Gingi1980


Sustainable diets: pest for pesto?

I think the frog trade is a complex matter that raises a wide discussion. Recently, there has been a lot of talk over the serious need for more sustainable diets, and not only from a biodiversity conservation point of view. The global food system requires a revolution. Globally 850 million people are starving while 1.5 billion people are overweight. Projects such as LiveWell for LIFEare working hard to raise awareness of the global impacts that our current diets are having in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, excessive land use and waste. However, with an ever increasing human population, and depleting food sources such as fish, it is likely that the pressure on frog populations will increase.

Perhaps the demand for frogs will always be there, and it will be difficult to render it sustainable by only focusing on regulating the current preferred species. So why not try and shift the consumption to pest species? This is what Professor Philip Hayward has suggested recently, suggesting that the Australian cane toads might be a good alternative. It would be a very economically profitable trade, and take pressure off some of the species mostly impacted by the current trade. Harvesting wild cane toads might also help the Australian ecosystems widely impacted by this invasive species. Fine food? I am not sure, but perhaps a grilled and spiced invasive cane toad might go down better than a grasshopper skewer.