An interview with Hanniki Pieterse
Western leopard toad signs that were put up this year. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
August marks the last month of winter in South Africa, and, as temperatures begin to rise, activists in Cape Town prepare for a truly unique conservation event. Every year at this time western leopard toads (Amietophrynus pantherinus) endemic to the region and Critically Endangered, embark on a night-time migration through Cape Town from their homes in the city’s gardens to the ponds they use as breeding sites—as far as three kilometers away. This season over one hundred volunteers took to the streets, flashlights in hand, to assist the toads in navigating the increasing number of man-made obstacles in their path. Among them was life-long resident and mother, Hanniki Pieterse, who serves as an organizer for volunteers in her area.
“Education is the most powerful tool we have…We talk to neighbors, schools, book clubs, garden clubs, we go on air at Radio stations and TV and we exploit the media in any way we can,” Pieterse told mongabay.com. “As we have built up most of the wetlands in urban areas, [western leopard toads] now have to navigate three meter high walls, storm water drains and, of course, traffic.”
The Critically Endangered western leopard toad. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
According to Pieterse, a group of Cape Town’s conservation-minded citizens formed the Western Leopard Toad Committee four years ago, and since then have been organizing a volunteer network across the city. Each August, in a real-life game of Frogger, volunteers watch and listen carefully for the first signs of toad movement, coordinating via telephone in order to mobilize and assist the toads across the man-made barriers between them and their future generations.
Fortunately, and thanks to the hard work of the volunteers, Pieterse reported a successful effort this season.
“This year we seem to have had more people sensitive to what we do…actually stopping with emergency lights on and calling me 20 minutes away on the Toad Hotline!” she says. “In our area alone, over 500 were saved with only 52 road kills.”
But Hanniki and Cape Town’s other volunteer toad shepherds are not done yet. Come December they will rally again to help the thousands of tiny emerging toadlets reach suitable homes and begin the whole process over again.
According to Pieterse, conservation is simply a lifestyle of awareness regarding the effects of your everyday actions. “As a Christian growing up at the foot of the mountain where I am now [the western leopard toad] coordinator, it is very important to both me and my daughter to take care of the little creatures who have no voice, and to try and keep our mountain a haven. If I cannot be trusted with the smallest things, how can I expect to be trusted with big things?”
According to the IUCN, South Africa’s once abundant western leopard toad has undergone its most severe population declines in only the last twenty years. Urban development is mostly to blame for fragmenting its populations, but it is also threatened by the introduction of non-native plant and animal species.
INTERVIEW WITH HANNIKI PIETERSE
Families helping at night on patrol. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
Mongabay: What are the biggest threats to the western leopard toad? What impacts are most crucial, and what are you and your fellow volunteers doing to mitigate them?
Hanniki Pieterse: Toads do not live in water like frogs but on dry land and sometimes up to 3 kilometers away from their breeding site. As we have built up most of the wetlands in urban areas, western leopard toadss now have to navigate 3 meter high walls, storm water drains and of course traffic. The single biggest threat to these animals is undoubtedly us—humans. Every year we find more and more are being killed by motorists driving too fast despite signs and volunteers with brightly colored jackets and torches. Education is still the most powerful tool we have. Most of our volunteers are simply passionately smitten with these creatures and will do anything to save them. We talk to neighbors, schools, book clubs, garden clubs, we go on air at radio stations and TV and we exploit the media in any way we can by bombarding them with articles and notices.
Mongabay: I can see from the western leopard toad website and Toadnuts that the conservation community makes a concerted effort to make leopard toad conservation a family affair, and especially to include children. Did these organizations exist when you were a child, or did you first become involved as an adult?
Measuring a toad and taking a photo of their back for identification. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
Hanniki Pieterse: We really try to include the whole family, but, and this is very important: the work is done at night as toads are nocturnal. It is understandable that it is very dangerous having young kids on the road especially where there are no street lights and lots of traffic. Parents have to take responsibility for their own children. We have Scout and Girl Guides Groups coming out to help with their teachers. I actually grew up in the area I work as coordinator, but we did not have groups like these. I think there is a huge difference in upbringing between generations. We were taught to respect and protect those who have no voice.
Mongabay: How many of Cape Town’s citizens get involved? Do you have opponents, or naysayers, or is western leopard toad conservation on its way to becoming an annual city-wide event?
Hanniki Pieterse: If I must take a wild guess I would say we have under 120 people involved in saving these toads. A committee was formed 4 years ago and from there we formed nodes. Coordinators were appointed for each node with volunteers living in that area. Volunteers work really hard during breeding season as all the movement is at night. We also have to fund ourselves. I cannot see that this would or could become a city event. We get a lot of opposition from residents wanting to use roads as racetracks and because we are walking in the road to pick up toads and cause motorists to then slow down.
Mongabay: Do you think that the survival of the western leopard toad will always depend on assistance from human volunteers, or is there hope in Cape Town of long-range solutions for keeping this species safe?
Some of our volunteers talking to Scouts. Pieterse in the right front corner. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
Hanniki Pieterse: My humble opinion is that the western leopard toad will always depend on human assistance due to the fact that we have built up most of our wetlands. They now live in fragmented areas where they really have to face so many challenges just getting to the breeding sites, i.e. roads, solid walls, electric fences, domestic animals and uncaring humans.
Mongabay: In this moment in history conservation has become more important than ever before, and I think most everyone agrees that there is much to do, and many species in need of our attention. How do you feel Cape Town’s efforts to save the western leopard toad fit into a bigger picture, and why do you personally do what you do?
Hanniki Pieterse: Conservation to me means that I should be aware every single day of what I am doing. Using too much water, dropping a plastic bag or bottle where it shouldn’t be, using pesticides, killing spiders and bees or any other living thing will eventually have a devastating effect no matter what we say. We are just a small group of people trying to save this animal—we get no funding and we have to build up our own volunteer corps. We are given the same rules and regulations regarding putting up signs, etc. as any other company. We use the western leopard toad as an indicator species. In other words, we know that when there are toads around we have a healthy environment. Like any building—if you take out any part of it—it will collapse.
As a Christian growing up at the foot of the mountain where I am now coordinator it is very important to both me and my daughter to take care of the little creatures who have no voice and secondly to try and keep our mountain a haven. If I cannot be trusted with the smallest how can I expect to be trusted with big things?
Mongabay: Set the scene for us. How will the first night of toad breeding play out for you and your volunteers?
Western leopard toadlet, about the size of a fingernail. Photo courtesy of: Hanniki Pieterse.
Hanniki Pieterse: Each area has a couple of “spotters.” These are people who want to help but are unable to go out at night—mostly elderly people. They let me know the moment they see movement in their area or hear the mating calls from ponds in their area. We will then start our patrols to determine the amount of movement. I will then call the volunteers and let them know where they must go.
We basically walk alongside the road with our reflective jackets and torches to stop toads from getting on to the road. We will then pick them up, take a photo of the back (their markings are like our fingerprints, unique); we measure them and check the sex. They are released on the opposite side of the road (in the direction they were facing). We never take them to ponds simply because we do not know where they prefer to go. They normally start moving at around 19.00 until 23.00 and then again in the morning very early. Weather conditions have to be perfect—warmer nights around 12-13 degrees Celsius, warmer rain and maybe a full moon. They stay at the breeding site for about 7-10 days and then the big trek back begins.
Six weeks later we will check the ponds for tadpoles, six weeks after that we check again for toadlets and around beginning of December all these minute toadlets leave the ponds to find homes of their own. Again we are at hand to move hundreds the size of a thumb nail.
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