August 24, 2007

Group to Meet, Launch Frog-Saving Effort

ST. LOUIS -- Kermit the Frog might be recruited, along with governments, corporations, and philanthropists, to help in a worldwide effort to stem the deaths of frog populations around the world.

Next week, leaders of the world's zoos and aquariums meeting in Budapest, Hungary, will discuss the logistics of the frog-saving effort, dubbed Amphibian Ark.

Members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums will discuss who's going to take which species for safekeeping and breeding.

The plan calls for 500 frogs of 500 species to be held in biosecure facilities around the world. The frogs' temporary digs would be regulated for temperature, humidity and other living conditions.

At the Budapest meeting, zoo and aquarium leaders also will be presented with a strategy for raising global awareness of the crisis and the initial $50 million needed to avert it.

"We'll need Kermit and everybody we can get to make this the thing that people talk about," said Jeffrey Bonner, chairman of the Amphibian Ark initiative, who also heads the Saint Louis Zoo.

"Protective custody has got to happen now, or within a year or two. Otherwise, it'll be too late. Extinction is forever."

A mysterious killer fungus is wiping out frog populations around the globe, and scientists have a plan to isolate hundreds of frogs at the world's zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens until they can be released in the wild safely.

Scientists say they have to figure out a way to get the killer fungus, called chytrid fungus, out of the environment or help the frogs develop a resistance. They can be cured with a fungicide, more easily than a person can shake athlete's foot, Bonner said. But they'll be affected again upon re-entry.

Because the species are dying rapidly, scientists want to put the frogs in safe environments while they figure out long-term solutions.

The deadly fungus causes frogs to suffocate. Since the late '90s, it has spread around the world rapidly, wiping out 80 percent of frogs in its reach within 12 months.

"The remainder can't find each other to reproduce," Bonner said.

Frogs consume a huge volume of insects, and they also are prey for birds.

The extinction of frog species, Bonner said, "may unbalance the ecosystem in a way that global warming could only hope to."

Amphibians also serve important biomedical purposes. Some species produce a chemical used as a pain reliever for humans; one species is linked to a chemical that inhibits the virus that causes AIDS.

St. Louis-based Fleishman-Hillard, an international marketing firm, developed Amphibian Ark's communications and fundraising plan.

It will be kicked off with worldwide events on New Year's Eve, leading into 2008, which conservationists have declared The Year of the Frog.

Feb. 29, or Leap Day, will be International Frog Day, when some of the amphibian rescues may occur.

Major corporate sponsors are being courted now.

TV naturalist and prominent conservationist Sir David Attenborough is patron of the 2008 Year of the Frog campaign.


On the Net:

Amphibian Ark: http://www.amphibianark.org