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Famous Golden Frog, El Valle de Antón, Panama

21-Aug-2017

When visiting El Valle de Antón I had no idea I would encounter such “famous” frogs. Signs about the upcoming golden frog (La Rana Dorada) festival were my first clue. But what sort of frog has an entire week-long festival dedicated to it?

So, off I went to the tiny El Nispero Zoo, hoping to catch a glimpse of this little creature. I wandered around the zoo and finally found the amphibian display. And there it was. The little frog sat motionless, right in front of the glass, like it was waiting for me. (Not hiding under the foliage like nearly all the other frogs.) It was rather tiny to be so famous, only about 2 inches long. Yes, it’s a pretty shade of yellow and has nice black spots. But what’s the big deal about that?

Now, even more curious, I went around the back of the amphibian house to find the answer.

Mark Vassallo from the Detroit Zoo

Soon I was chatting with Mark Vassalo, an amphibian department zookeeper visiting from the Detroit zoo. His passion is the breeding and preservation of the Panamanian golden frog. In addition, his specialty is building and maintaining amphibian exhibits. This niche requires the creativity of an architect and hands-on work of an expert builder along with a formal zoology degree.

Mark was here in Panama for 2 weeks to train local zookeepers and improve the exhibits. What’s more, I learned that he wasn’t the only visiting zoologist. There were others from all around the world. They were here to help save these frogs and be part of the upcoming festivities and education.

Mark also told me that some scientists have spent fully 10-15 years of their lives dedicated to studying just this one species of frog. I was amazed beyond comprehension! There simply has to be more to it. Why is this frog so loved by the Panamanian populace? And why such intense devotion by zoologists?

As we talked, I learned that the natural habit of the Golden Frog is the jungle hillside streams centered around El Valle de Antón. But about 10 years ago, two amphibian researchers noticed a dramatic decline in the population. The frogs were being decimated by the chytrid fungus, illegal pet trade collectors, and destruction of habitat. Extremely concerned, they contacted the Panamanian government. Subsequently they got permission to collect all remaining uninfected specimens in the area.

Soon they had about 40 frogs. These were housed temporarily in the Campestre hotel until more suitable accommodations could be arranged. An emergency alert went out to zoos everywhere regarding the dire situation. Scientists banded together. They started a project, raised funds.  Gradually, the El Nispero Zoo became the epicenter for a world-wide coordinated rescue effort.

More interesting tidbits I learned

This small frog is now completely extinct in the wild. The “killer” fungus is rampant everywhere. So if any of the precious frogs are released they would quickly become infected and die.

The captive population has been successfully brought back from the brink of extinction. It now numbers about 2,000 world-wide.

Studies and breeding experiments are underway to cross-breed a more fungus resistant subspecies. Scientists hope to someday re-release golden frogs into the wild.

However, golden frog breeding is definitely not left to chance. The scientists closely monitor and control the process to ensure the necessary genetic diversity in the remaining population. In fact, these frogs are treated much like thoroughbred race horses or pedigree pets. A designated scientist keeps a master stud-book for these little guys! This person determines which frogs around the world should mate. Who could have guessed that golden frogs have a world wide registry and their very own “match-maker”?

The Golden Frog Festival

The Panamanian government declared August 14 as the day of La Rana Dorada. That day has gradually turned into two weeks of events. People  all around Panama put up decorations and plan festivities. The culmination in El Valle is a parade complete with marching bands and children dressed in yellow & black. (Unfortunately I missed this since I was scheduled to leave the day before.)

Links for more info

The final wave of the Panamanian golden frog. A very informative 2012 Guardian article about the Golden Frog. The last time the frog was filmed in the wild was by Sir David Attenborough for a BBC special.

Amphibian Rescue Project of Panama is dedicated to saving all of Panama’s endangered species.

And for a fountain of facts, check out Wikipedia.

Symbolism

As you can see, this little frog represents much more than good luck and prosperity. It’s a natural cultural symbol for Panama, akin to the bald eagle for the USA. Old legends even say that the frog turned to gold when it died. What a reputation! Thus, the golden frog gets printed on lottery tickets and signs everywhere. It also shows up on t-shirts, postcards and countless souvenir trinkets.

This Huffington Post article helps explain the deep significance:

The Fight to Save Panama’s ‘Symbol of Hope’ From Extinction

Some quotes:

“The golden frog represented hope and resilience and the enduring power of life for generations of Panamanians. But now, it signifies just how delicate that life can be. It’s been extinct from its natural habitat since 2007.”

“Humans unwittingly caused these frogs to disappear, and we have a moral obligation to bring them back.”

Final thoughts on the Golden Frog

I am truly heartened by the extent of the world wide efforts to save this tiny creature. They have meetings, create plans, raise money, generate awareness, educate and train, trade and breed frogs around the world… in short, whatever is needed.

The Huff-Post article called the frogs “the unsung heroes of the forest”. However, I feel that the scientists working on such conservation and preservation projects are also unsung heroes. They do the research, do their best to figure out what to do, and band together beyond ideologies and borders.

I applaud and am truly inspired by such dedication.

In closing, here’s another thought for contemplation…

It certainly appears that humanity is now “righting our wrongs” by working diligently to save the Golden Frog. However, deeply hidden within that viewpoint still lies a sense of human superiority. Plus the attitude of being in-charge of the world. And that the way to “fix” things is to increasingly control them.

Perhaps we should humbly consider another viewpoint. What if the current plight of the Golden Frog has actually been a tremendously “lucky” golden gift to us?

  • Awakening us to our responsibility for our total impact on the planet.
  • Increasing our understanding of the intricate interconnected fabric of life.
  • Helping us realize that no species is unimportant and insignificant.
  • Ultimately, calling for us to act and live within the context that all life is inherently and infinitely valuable.

I believe that underneath all these efforts, we intuitively sense that saving the Golden Frog has a much larger significance. In fact, it is really an attempt to save ourselves.

In effect, you could say that the Golden Frog is actually helping save humanity. It is saving us from the insanity of the notion that we are somehow separate from life.

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