The Togo slippery frog lives amidst the waterfalls and forests of eastern Ghana. Just three inches long in adulthood, with skin the color of glistening mud, its nondescript appearance belies a fascinating history. It belongs to a family of frogs that dates back 70 million years to the late Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Hunted for its meat so relentlessly over the last 5,000 years that for decades it was feared to be extinct, today it’s one of the most endangered amphibians on the planet.
Alongside more than 100 other species in 50 countries around the world, the Togo slippery frog is protected by EDGE of Existence, which stands for “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered” and is funded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
EDGE is the only global initiative of its kind, training early-career conservationists and emphasizing local ownership of habitat protection — and ZSL, in turn, is one of the world’s most iconic zoological organizations. It inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and hosted David Attenborough’s first nature documentary.
Now, both programs are fighting for their own survival.
Because of COVID-19, ZSL was forced to close both of its zoos, one in London and the other about 30 miles north in Whipsnade, from mid-March to mid-June, the longest time they’ve remained closed in the organization’s almost 200-year history.
ZSL derives 40% of its annual income from ticket sales, and most of its annual expenditures — 78% between 2018 and 2019 — go toward scientific research and field-based conservation and caring for its 20,000 animals. Monthly food bills at the London zoo alone total £43,500, so ZSL has been forced to dig into its financial reserves in order to keep everyone adequately fed. Zoo executives are forecasting £20 million in losses for the year.
More pressingly, the travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19 have stalled a number of ZSL’s 300 conservation and research projects. Olivia Couchman, a ZSL project manager based in the U.K., explains that EDGE projects have been “heavily delayed since we are unable to do face-to-face training.” The EDGE team members at home have also had to grapple with the anxieties of knowing that some of their colleagues abroad have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or are working out of politically unstable regions that have become even more precarious since the pandemic began. “We don’t really understand the full impact of the pandemic on conservation yet,” says Couchman.
Caleb Ofori Boateng is the founder of a conservation NGO called Herp-Ghana, which he has been running since his days as an EDGE Fellow between 2012 to 2014. Today, he continues to supervise other EDGE Fellows in the region. With a handful of other herpatologists — that is, zoologists specializing in the study of amphibians and reptiles — Ofori established a community-led conservation program in 2012 to save the Togo slippery frog and its habitat. Locals donated part of their land to a protected reserve in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds from the tourists who visit. Many of those who’d been hunting and illegally cutting down trees signed on to work as rangers instead for a monthly stipend.
When the reserve was shut to outsiders due to COVID-19, there was no longer a way to pay the local workers, and illegal activity resumed almost immediately.
“We work in economically very deprived communities,” Ofori explains. “This means people need to cut trees, hunt, or farm on a daily basis to survive.” He says his team had to intervene when one man sold all his trees for the equivalent of £140 to afford a decent burial for his wife. Another ranger turned to logging again so he could feed his children. The population of Togo slippery frogs in the reserve is dwindling at an alarming rate, as are those of pangolins and bay and Maxwell duikers, sub-species of antelopes native to sub-Saharan Africa.
ZSL is not alone in worrying about its future. The Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, which breeds and reintroduces endangered animals such as the Vancouver marmot back into the wild, also had to close from mid-March until early July. It launched a crowdfunding campaign in April to raise $100,000 to cover the cost of animal feed, but wound up raising more than five times that in just a little over a week. Grocers in Toronto have also donated hay and fresh produce for the animals. “It has really shown us how much people care, and we’re very grateful,” says Beth Gilhespy, executive director of the conservancy.
At the same time, she worries about the potential long-term consequences of COVID-19 on the conservancy’s funding, as mass unemployment will almost certainly translate into diminished individual and institutional capacity for donations.
“Offering a fun family experience is an integral part of the zoo’s work, but ultimately, that’s just a means to an end, which is to educate people about wildlife conservation and inspire them to make environmentally friendly choices,” she says.
Likewise, Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, says that the pandemic has been especially problematic for the organization’s researchers working on time-limited projects. “If you’re hoping to understand coral spawning in Curacao, or to observe the migration season of certain bird species, your timetable is cut back by an entire year,” he says.
In a cruel twist, some of this work could be key to preventing the next pandemic. Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at ZSL, heads the organization’s research on infectious diseases that make the leap from animals to people.
“People drink yogurt to increase the biodiversity in their gut,” he says. “Biodiversity on the planet pretty much does the same thing — it prevents any one pathogen becoming so prevalent that spillover is likely to occur.”
Cunningham is quick to stress that blame should not be assigned to these animals, but rather to human behavior.
“If you’re hunting bats and bringing in wild animals that are sick, diseased, and stressed,” he says, “there’s a higher chance of them spreading pathogens that can jump onto other species, including domestic animals and humans.”
While both of ZSL’s zoos are now open at a fifth of their respective capacities, in accordance with best practice for social distancing, the financial damage has been done. Nearly half of ZSL’s staff were furloughed during the lockdown, and many have been unable to return to work. A fundraising campaign fronted by Sir Attenborough has raised £911,587 so far, falling short of its target of £1 million. A £100 million rescue package for zoos has been announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but it’s unclear how much of this ZSL is entitled to.
In the worst-case scenario of ZSL no longer being able to operate, it would be forced to move its animals to other zoos and sanctuaries. The loss to global conservation efforts, however, would be immense and incalculable.
“Zoo conservation programs are under siege, but habitat destruction goes on,” Toronto’s Beth Gilhespy says. “Wildlife can’t wait for us to figure this out.”
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