- Considered the “holy grail” by frog enthusiasts worldwide, Lehmann’s poison frog used to be so common that it littered the ground in its native habitat.
- A 2013 documentary that aimed to find a red morph of Lehmann’s poison frog could only find a single one in a remote part of its range.
- The dire situation faced by this and other endangered poison frogs in Colombia prompted an animal scientist to start Tesoros de Colombia, an organization with the objective of ending illegal frog smuggling.
Lehmann’s poison frog (Oophaga lehmanni) is one of many beautiful frog species endemic to Colombia. It is has been subject to illegal trafficking for the wildlife pet trade, and is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
Considered the “holy grail” by frog enthusiasts worldwide, this species used to be so common that it littered the ground in its native habitat. However, a German-led documentary, filmed in 2013, that aimed to find a red morph of Lehmann’s poison frog could only find a single one in a remote part of its range.
The dire situation faced by this and other endangered poison frogs in the country prompted Colombian animal scientist Ivan Lozano-Ortega to start an organization with the objective of ending illegal frog smuggling and simultaneously satisfying the appetite of voracious frog collectors worldwide. After many years of negotiations the group, called Tesoros de Colombia (“Treasures of Colombia”), recently obtained the required permits from CITES and the Colombian government to legally export its captive-bred Lehmann’s poison frogs for the international hobbyist market.
Lozano-Ortega recently spoke to Mongabay about Tesoros de Colombia, which he started in 2006 with a team of other conservationists to realize his dream of saving Colombian poison frogs from extinction.
Offering sustainable and legally sourced frogs is the only way to deter smugglers from coming to Colombia each year and taking everything they want, Lozano-Oretga said. “Saving these species is the whole purpose of creating Tesoros de Colombia as it is the best way to avoid short term extinction from illegal overexploitation,” he said.
Prior to starting the company, Lozano-Ortega worked with confiscated animals at the Bogota Wildlife Rescue Centre. Sixteen years ago, after receiving a consignment of hundreds of illegally caught wild poison frogs that his organization was ill-equipped to deal with, he realized that illegal trafficking was a big issue in Colombia and that something needed to be done about it for the sake of wild species.
In 2006, Lozano-Ortega attempted to start what he called “a new age of wildlife farming” with an operation “based on animal science and animal welfare” in order to stop wildlife smuggling and bring money to local communities. But he soon realized that Colombia’s legislation would not permit what he had in mind and that there were a lot of obstacles to this kind of bold conservation strategy.
Lozano-Ortega worked hard and invested substantial effort on two main fronts. He researched the biology, husbandry, and welfare of the species he sought to breed. And he set about obtaining export licenses from the Colombian authorities, which involved convincing them of the value of sustainable biocommerce in internationally traded wild species as well as getting them to adjust the country’s regulations governing the export of native frogs.
In November 2011, Tesoros de Colombia finally received permits from the Colombian government for the country’s first ever legal export of native frogs. The species was the endemic yellow-striped poison frog (Dendrobates truncates) and the shipment went to Canada.
After getting that first permit to export yellow-striped poison frogs, Tesoros de Colombia secured permits to export several other well established hobbyist species. Among them are the green and black poison frog (D. auratus), the Kokoe poison frog (Phyllobates aurotaenia), and the golden poison frog (P. terribilis). Lozano-Ortega said he believes that the demand for wild-caught frogs of these three species has declined to zero since Tesoros de Colombia began exporting them, although he acknowledges that research in this area is outstanding.
Lozano-Ortega’s goal all along has been to breed the showiest and therefore most sought-after frogs, and these are Colombia’s so-called “obligate egg-feeder” frogs in the genus Oophaga, which include Lehmann’s poison frog. These frogs are generally quite difficult to maintain and breed in captivity, as the tadpoles must be fed unfertilized eggs from the mother frog.
Tesoros de Colombia did successfully breed Lehmann’s poison frog as well as another obligate egg feeder, the harlequin poison frog (O. histrionica). Last month the company finally obtained permits to export them. Lozano-Ortega himself took a consignment of Lehmann’s and harlequin poison frogs to the U.S.
Lozano-Ortega told Mongabay that he is happy knowing that these animals are in the hands of qualified individuals with the means and experience to breed them. He explained that Tesoros de Colombia is aiming to eliminate the market for smuggled frogs by making legal, ethical and sustainable captive bred babies available to anyone who might want one. “Oophaga [frogs] are very slow to breed [and] we are currently working to increase our production so that we may begin to meet the demand,” he said. “Some of the animals that arrived [in the U.S.] are breeding pairs, so it is not unreasonable to [expect to] see U.S. captive-bred offspring very soon.”
Tesoros plans to breed other species of poison frogs in the near future, including the La Brea poison frog (O. occultator), the Pichincha poison frog (O.sylvatica), and the black-legged poison frog (P. bicolour). He hopes that demand for illegally caught frogs of all these species will quickly drop to zero.
Lozano-Ortega views his work as an important step in diversifying the Colombian economy and enabling local communities, rather than renegade smugglers, to profit from the country’s enormous biodiversity.“[W]e are proving that a [diverse] country should be working on biocommerce instead of promoting only traditional industries such as mining, oil and agriculture,” he said.
Tesoros now has enough income to secure its operation for the first time without external support, and the company supports five families, having created seven permanent jobs.
Lozano-Ortega also hopes to change frog enthusiasts’ attitudes by “transforming the international amphibian keeping hobby, from keeping illegal frogs to having only legal ones and making hobbyists more responsible of species conservation,” he said. “We hope all Colombian captive frogs in the future will have legal origin!”