The conservation project on the tomato frog Dyscophus antongilii at Maroantsetra
An iconic frog
The northern or true tomato frog (Dyscophus antongilii) is a well-known a flagship species for frog conservation in Madagascar for a variety of reasons: (1) It is a peculiar species in terms of morphology and coloration (the individuals are extensively bright red and reach quite a huge size) and therefore it is a true iconic conservation species for the whole Malagasy amphibian fauna; (2) it is the only amphibian species in Madagascar included in CITES I; (3) it is the only brightly coloured frog inhabiting mainly an urban habitat (within the town of Maroantsetra, NE Madagascar). This last reason deserves special attention since it provides a unique opportunity to connect local communities with the conservation of a species. Very rarely the Malagasy people are in direct “contact” with their biodiversity, since usually the very rich and peculiar amphibian fauna can only be found (and thus observed) in remote, relatively untouched primary or secondary mature rainforests, while anthropogenically modified habitats are rarely distinguished by the presence of attractive animals.
The tomato frog village
Since 2003 a particular attention was deserved to the conservation status of the urban populations of tomato frog in Maroantsetra. Thanks to an idea of Miguel Vences and of the local pop-singer and environmentalist Augustin Sarovy, the Maroantsetra tomato frog population(s) became object of a repeated series of studies and awareness initiatives. In particular, we started collecting data on body size, sexual dimorphism and age structure of this peculiar species. Indeed, although it was one of the most known frog species of Madagascar, and considered that a large amount of live individuals was exported in the eighties, very little was known on its biology and life history. An important source of funding was identified in two grants obtained from EAZA and WAZA. Then, the tomato frog populations is Maroantsetra received conservation attention in recent years directly due to ACSAM (A Conservation Strategy for the Amphibians of Madagascar). In particular, through the BIOPAT fund some land was purchased and designated for the creation of ponds within the so-called “tomato frog village” (TFV), set up by Antongil Conservation. Further supports were obtained through funds from EAZA, WAZA and Madagascar Fauna Group. The local NGO Antongil Conservation, that takes care of the TFV, is supported by the Zoo de Doué de la Fontaine.
The collection of phenological data
Furthermore, data-collection of basic phenological information (number of active adults, calling individuals, egg-laying) as well as rainfall measurements is still being assured on a daily basis by a local nature guide (Felix) and his family. This data-gathering through citizen involvement was specially remarkable, since it marked an increasing interest and attention of local people towards the conservation of animals other than the well-known lemurs and birds. The collected data from the last few years suggest that the tomato frog populations around Maroantsetra are declining and their habitats (particularly breeding ponds) are disappearing. In 2009, we (ASG, Antongil Conservation and the Madagascar Fauna Group) organized a festival dedicated specifically to the tomato frog, which drew large crowds and had great success in terms of awareness raising of the population of Maroantsetra.
Conservation of the tomato frog
There is an evident conservation consequence since the protection of the last, residual urban populations of tomato frogs at Maroantsetra means the logical safeguard of one of the most iconic amphibians of the island within one of the most important ecotourism destinations. Foreign and national people passing through Maroantsetra are usually aware of the presence of tomato frog populations, and ask to visit the breeding sites. Maroantsetra is, therefore, a very important location where one can feel “up close and personally” the importance of amphibian conservation. In fact, it is critical that the actions in this proposal target urban populations of the frog species. In general, only a few amphibians can be seen by people living in towns (who are usually unaware of their importance). Normally, it is necessary to go in wild habitats (forests, ponds, streams) to see animals “worthy” of protection, leaving the urban people unaware of the meaning and beauty of these animals. The tomato frog populations at Maroantsetra satisfy this important link between everyday life and wildlife conservation, showing that the conservation of an animal species and its habitat has evident fallout on human welfare. Moreover, the tomato frog is “attractive” for eco-tourists, being large-sized and bright red in color. A visit to the last populations gives the opportunity to a wide range of people to understand the threats affecting Malagasy (and worldwide) amphibians, especially linking them with habitat conservation and trade control.