- The indigenous Arhuaco people of the Sogrome community living in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have been residing alongside the the starry night harlequin toad (Atelopus arsyecue) for generations.
- But the critically endangered species has remained undetected by scientists for nearly 30 years.
- Recently, after several years of discussions, the Sogrome community, which considers the harlequin toad sacred and an integral part of its culture, permitted researchers from a Colombian conservation group to go and photograph the toads and share it with the wider scientific community.
Not all species “lost to science” are truly lost.
For nearly 30 years, the starry night harlequin toad (Atelopus arsyecue), a tiny amphibian, named for its glossy black skin with white spots that resembles a starry, dark sky, remained undetected by scientists. But the indigenous Arhuaco people of the Sogrome community living in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the world’s tallest coastal mountains and the only place the toad is known from, have been residing alongside the species for generations. They not only share their mountain home with the toad, but consider the animal sacred and an integral part of their culture. According to the Arhuaco people, gouna, as the toad is locally known, tells them about their environment, indicating the right time to plant crops or perform spiritual ceremonies.
“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a place that we consider sacred, and harlequin toads are guardians of water and symbols of fertility,” Kaneymaku Suarez Chaparro, a member of the Sogrome community and a biology student at the Francisco José de Cladas District University, said in a statement.
Recently, the community opened its doors to some conservation biologists, allowing them to take photographs of the critically endangered toads and share them with the wider scientific community, the U.S.-based Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) announced in a press release.
“With the starry night harlequin toad records, we confirm that Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the most important sites for the conservation of harlequin toads in Latin America,” Luis Alberto Rueda, a professor at Universidad del Magdalena and cofounder of Fundación Atelopus, said in the statement. Fundación Atelopus is the Colombian NGO that partners with GWC and is working to document the toad.
“We are tremendously grateful to the Arhuaco people for giving us this opportunity to work with them,” added Lina Valencia, Colombia conservation officer at GWC.
Harlequin toads, a group of vibrant toads found in the American tropics, are among the world’s most threatened amphibians. Of the 96 known species of harlequin toads, 80 are endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List. The deadly chytrid fungus in particular, which has decimated amphibian populations around the world, has hit the harlequin toads hard. And researchers were worried that the starry night harlequin toad, which hadn’t been recorded by scientists in nearly three decades, had been wiped out by the fungal disease.
The researchers, however, couldn’t get easy access to the toads’ habitat on Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Fundación Atelopus, keen to record the species for the scientific community, slowly built trust with the Sogrome community, engaging in four years of discussions with the community’s representative Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña and Sogrome’s spiritual leaders called mamos.
Villafaña sent the conservation group some photos of the toads during those talks. But it was finally, in April 2019, that the biologists were invited to go and see the toad for themselves, although they weren’t allowed to photograph the animals then. This was to be a “test of trust,” in which the Arhuaco people wanted to understand what the researchers’ intentions were. Eventually, following a series of meetings, the mamos allowed the scientists to visit the toads again, photograph them, and share their pictures with others.
The Fundación Atelopus team ended up seeing not one, but around 30 starry night harlequin toads.
“It is an incredible honor to be entrusted with the story of the starry night harlequin toad and the story of the Sogrome community’s relationship with it,” José Luis Pérez-González, vice president of Fundación Atelopus, said in the statement. “We were hoping to find one individual of the starry night harlequin toad, and to our great surprise we found a population of 30 individuals. We were full of joy and hope as we had the chance to observe a healthy population from a genus for which very few species remain.”
The conservation group now hopes to work with the Sogrome community to establish a monitoring program to track the toad’s status on Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and discussions are ongoing.
“We manage our resources and conserve our home as the law of origin dictates, which means that we live in balance with Mother Earth and all of the life here,” Chaparro said. “Now we have a great opportunity to bring together two worldviews for the protection and preservation of the Sierra species: the Western scientific knowledge and the indigenous scientific, cultural and spiritual knowledge.”