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Saving Hawaii's Frogs

Courtesy Frogworld.net

BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER - April 29, 2011 is International Save the Frog Day. Why save the frogs?

Besides being beautiful, fascinating, a source of medicinal substances, and essential for healthy ecosystem function, frogs are canaries in the environmental coal mine. They are sensitive to pollution and climate change. And their numbers are declining at extinction rates.

That's bad news for the rest of us living in the coal mine. Clearly, we need to change our ways.
But change is difficult for a culture to accept. Until people are dying at the rate of frogs, nothing will alter our bad cultural behaviors.

So the next best thing to do is try saving the frogs. We may not be able to stop pesticide and herbicide use, or end the deforestation and development of wild areas, or stop all the industries and lifestyles that contribute to climate change. But we can catch frogs where they are declining and find new, healthier places for them to live.

We might not have the political and economic clout to stop multinational corporations from exploiting and altering the world's environments. But we can help refugee species flee the destruction and avoid extinction.

There are places on the planet that can serve as sanctuaries for these refugees. One place, in particular, stands out as one of the best – Hawaii.

If you move frogs from one place to another that already has frogs, the immigrants will compete with the natives, and you can possibly lose native frog populations. Hawaii, however, has no native frogs, or any native reptiles, amphibians, land snakes, or lizards. What better place to introduce frogs? Lots of insect pests to eat, warm and humid conditions, and few predators. If we wanted a sanctuary for endangered and threatened frogs, this is the place.

But wait. Can we just move a species from one part of the planet to another? Won't it become invasive and cause damage?

It is this question that is keeping frogs from finding new homes. According to current trends in environmental thinking, species “belong” where they are “native”. You're not supposed to move them to places where they “don't belong”. When it comes to frogs, the Hawaii government has said they clearly “don't belong”.

Of course, there are already frogs and toads in Hawaii, which were brought by environmental managers for insect control decades ago. Back then species were introduced deliberately to enhance biodiversity and provide needed environmental services, such as pest control, or to serve as a food source. The environment was seen as a garden for us to plant and inhabit as we saw fit.

That has all changed. Now the goal of managers is to kill introduced species in order to preserve and restore native ecosystems as they had existed prior to western contact centuries ago. They won't get rid of the people, or the agriculture, or the chemical spraying, or the bulldozing, or the deforestation, or the development, or the intercontinental shipping, or the industries and energy policies that help cause climate change. It's hard to change these aspects of the culture. But you sure can kill things that “don't belong”.

What was called “exotic” or “immigrant” is now called “alien” or “invasive”. We have gone from an open immigration policy to a bio-xenophobia.

When coqui tree frogs accidentally arrived in Hawaii with shipments of plants from Florida or Puerto Rico, the response was ballistic. The mayor of Hawaii declared a state of emergency. Scientists feared the sky was falling, and that the coquis, which eat lots of insects, would decimate the insect population to the point of starving all other insectivorous creatures. The sound of the frogs, a two-toned “ko-KEE”, was described as a “shrill shriek” guaranteed to keep everyone awake at night, run down property values, and drive away tourists.

Ironically, this same coqui frog is the national animal of Puerto Rico, its native land. In fact, Puerto Ricans love this frog and its chirping sound so much that it is honored in local folklore. People describe the nighttime sound of the coqui as soothing and necessary for sleep, and Puerto Rican travelers often bring recordings of coquis with them when away from home to help them sleep.

Puerto Rico has numerous species of coqui frogs, many of which are now extinct or threatened. Unfortunately, frog numbers are declining because of fungal infections, development, climate change, and pesticide and herbicide use. So you can imagine how angry and upset Puerto Ricans were when Hawaii announced its Frog War to eradicate the newly arrived coquis.

Over the past 10 years, millions of dollars have been spent in Hawaii trying to kill coquis. And despite wide cost-saving cuts in government spending, there is still money to kill coquis.

At first, they tried an experiment to kill coquis with concentrated caffeine, giving the frogs a heart attack. A special emergency exemption was needed from the EPA to allow this spraying of caffeine into the environment. It's impact on humans, pets, plants, lizards, and other non-target species was unknown, or what it would do once it entered the groundwater and flowed to the oceans. Chemical warfare suits were needed by applicators to prevent exposure to the highly dangerous caffeine, which was at concentrations 100 times that of coffee. There is no antidote for caffeine poisoning.

When the caffeine experiment proved untenable and too dangerous, citric acid was encouraged as a frogicide. Sprayers soaked the forests with acid, sometimes sprayed from helicopters, to drench the tiny frogs and burn them to death. Of course, this also killed plants and other critters, such as lizards. But since lizards are non-native, nobody in the government cared.

But citric acid is expensive. So another experiment was tried, using hydrated lime to burn the frogs. This caustic chemical can also cause irreversible eye and lung damage to people and pets on contact, so another emergency exemption was needed from the EPA to experiment with it. As it turned out, the hydrated lime didn't work very well, and it killed lots of plants.

So the University of Hawaii experimented on developing a frog disease to unleash on the frogs. They tried a fungus to infect the frogs, the same one killing frogs elsewhere in the world. They realized the fungus might also kill the geckos, skinks, anoles, and other lizards, as well as the toads. But since none are native to Hawaii, none of the eradicators cared. In fact, destroying all the lizards and toads would be considered a plus. The coqui frogs, however, survived the fungus, so it was never released wide scale.

By now you may wonder how people can get away with this abuse of frogs. Aren't there laws protecting animals from this type of cruelty?

There are. So to get around the laws the Hawaii legislature passed a law defining the coqui as a “pest”. Pest species are exempted from humane laws.

This moral depravity reached its zenith in 2007, with a planned Coqui Bounty Hunter contest to be held by public schools on the Big Island. Schools instructed students to kill coquis, either by burning them with acid, cooking them alive, or freezing them. The school with the most “kills” would receive a prize -- the violent video games Playstation 3 and Xbox. The contest was canceled once it was pointed out to the schools that students are supposed to receive humane, not inhumane, education.

Despite the eradication attempts, the frogs spread. Actually, sometimes they spread because of these attempts, since coquis try leaving areas disturbed by spraying. An interisland quarantine on the coqui still exists, requiring all plant nurseries treat plants with hot water, proven lethal to coquis and their eggs, prior to transport to other islands. But the coquis seem to frequently survive that, too.

So here is the irony. Frogs are disappearing from everywhere in the world except in Hawaii, where the government is trying to make them disappear.

Yet, despite the endless anti-coqui propaganda, people are coming to like the little coqui frog, especially those people who have arrived to Hawaii since the advent of the coqui. To these people, the sound of Hawaii includes the coqui. To these new human immigrants, the coqui is normal, and enjoyable. They understand why the Puerto Ricans love these frogs.

If we are to save the world's endangered and threatened frogs, and other wildlife that needs rescue from the human-damaged world, we need to change our environmental immigration policy. It doesn't matter where a species is native, or where it “belongs”. That these species survive is what matters. And this may require finding them a new home.

This is not to suggest that we bring in species willy nilly, without thinking about the impact on local species. We need careful study to know which species can be introduced, and where. But unless we open our borders, and our hearts, to these refugee species, they will die.

We caused their problems. Their fate is in our hands.

For more info on the coqui, see Panic in Paradise: Invasive Species Hysteria and the Hawaiian Coqui Frog War (ISCD Press, 2005), and visit www.HawaiianCoqui.org.

Short URL: http://www.hawaiireporter.com/?p=33020

2 Comments for “Saving Hawaii's Frogs”

  1. "Besides being beautiful, fascinating, a source of medicinal substances, and essential for healthy ecosystem function; frogs are canaries in the environmental coal mine" [I guess that means ecosystems without native frogs were/are unhealthy?] "They are sensitive to pollution and climate change." [True] And their numbers are declining at extinction rates." [True for many, but not ALL frog species, or is that an inconvenient truth?]

    "That’s bad news for the rest of us living in the coal mine. Clearly, we need to change our ways." [Clearly] "But change is difficult for a culture to accept." [Agreed. I fear change] "Until people are dying at the rate of frogs” [Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Somalia etc.] “nothing will alter our bad cultural behaviors." [Hmmm...okay]

    "So the next best thing to do is try saving the frogs." [What?!? The earth is dying, humans are screwed, so the NEXT best thing is to try saving frogs? You're losing me]

    "We may not be able to stop pesticide and herbicide use, or end the deforestation and development of wild areas, or stop all the industries and lifestyles that contribute to climate change. But we can catch frogs where they are declining and find new, healthier places for them to live." [Okay, now you really lost me. The earth is going down the toilet, but at least we can save frogs?!? Have you been partaking of medicinal frog? We may not be able to stop your neighbor from burning trash next door, or your house and yard from burning down, or keep your kids from playing with matches or prevent you from storing oily rags in your garage, but at least we can save your smoke alarm and put it into a new house.]

    "We might not have the political and economic clout to stop multinational corporations from exploiting and altering the world’s environments." [Preservation is hard work. There's got to be an easier way. If only someone had a solution. Anyone?] "But we can help refugee species flee the destruction and avoid extinction." [I KNEW you'd have an answer. Thanks for coming through!]

    "There are places on the planet that can serve as sanctuaries for these refugees" [I wonder what that place might be?] "One place, in particular, stands out as one of the best – Hawaii." [Darn! I guessed Iceland.]

    "If you move frogs from one place to another that already has frogs, the immigrants will compete with the natives,” [because frogs ONLY compete with other frogs?] “and you can possibly lose native frog" [only frog?] "populations.” [a wise man once said: It doesn’t matter where a species is native, or where it “belongs”… I can’t recall his name. It will come to me] “Lots of insect pests to eat” [frogs are very discriminating in their choice of food, choosing only insect pests. Right on, frogs!] “warm and humid conditions, and few predators.” [sounds like a nice place to live. The Hawaiian species have it so easy] “If we wanted a sanctuary for endangered and threatened frogs, this is the place.” [But ONLY endangered and threatened frogs, right? We couldn’t possibly move every species of frog in the world to the Hawaiian Islands, could we? At least not ones that are widespread and abundant, right?]

    “But wait.” [There’s more! Act now and you’ll also receive the Ronco pocket potato peeler at no extra charge! Sorry, couldn’t resist] “Can we just move a species from one part of the planet to another?” [Of course we CAN, but SHOULD we?] “Won’t it become invasive and cause damage?” [Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell us]

    “It is this question that is keeping frogs from finding new homes." [That, and TONS of examples of species becoming invasive and causing damage] "According to current trends in environmental thinking, species “belong” where they are “native”. You’re not supposed to move them to places where they “don’t belong”. When it comes to frogs, the Hawaii government has said they clearly “don’t belong”. [And when it comes to some people, "If you move frogs from one place to another that already has frogs, the immigrants will compete with the natives, and you can possibly lose native frog populations.” I guess that means they don’t belong in places where they can displace other species??]

    “Of course, there are already frogs and toads in Hawaii, which were brought by environmental managers for insect control decades ago. Back then species were introduced deliberately to enhance biodiversity and provide needed environmental services, such as pest control, or to serve as a food source. The environment was seen as a garden for us to plant and inhabit as we saw fit.” [back when there were few, or no regulations on importing species. Ahhh, the good old days!]

    “That has all changed. Now the goal of managers is to kill introduced species in order to preserve and restore native ecosystems as they had existed prior to western contact centuries ago. They won’t get rid of the people, or the agriculture, or the chemical spraying, or the bulldozing, or the deforestation, or the development, or the intercontinental shipping, or the industries and energy policies that help cause climate change.” [THEY clearly suck. YOU, on the other hand, are doing everything you can to “get rid of the people” and change these things. Kudos] “It’s hard to change these aspects of the culture.” [It’s hard to protect species where they come from too, huh?] “But you sure can kill things that “don’t belong” [You sure can move species around a lot easier than you can protect them in their homelands, too.]

    “What was called “exotic” or “immigrant” is now called “alien” or “invasive”. [I prefer "exotic" to "invasive" dancers, but I digress]. "We have gone from an open immigration policy to a bio-xenophobia.” [Which clearly suggests that we try to keep anything from coming into Hawaii that is not native. I am outraged at this policy to which we have gone. I don't have the heart to break this to my alien house cats]

    “Puerto Rico has numerous species of coqui frogs, many of which are now extinct or threatened.” [except for the Common Coquís…native to the islands of Puerto Rico, Vieques & Culebra where they are widespread & abundant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Coqu%C3%AD

    “Unfortunately, frog numbers are declining because of fungal infections, development, climate change, and pesticide and herbicide use.” [What the hell, Puerto Rico?!? Don’t you care about your national animal?!?] “So you can imagine how angry and upset Puerto Ricans were when Hawaii announced its Frog War to eradicate the newly arrived coquis.” [Wait! What!?! But you just said the frogs were disappearing in Puerto Rico because of all the harm Puerto Ricans were doing to THEIR environment! WTF!?! And Puerto Ricans are angry and upset with Hawaii?!? Take better care of your island! Hey, I trashed my house and destroyed the plumbing, so my brother is going to move in with you permanently. How dare you tell him he has to leave!]

    "If we are to save the world’s endangered and threatened frogs, and other wildlife that needs rescue from the human-damaged world, we need to change our environmental immigration policy." [The Hawaiian Islands are the endangered species and extinction capital of the world, so I guess this means we should be finding Hawaiian species a new home in other parts of the world as well. Makes sense]

    "...we need to change our environmental immigration policy." [How? By making it easier to bring in species from other parts of the world?] "This is not to suggest that we bring in species willy nilly, without thinking about the impact on local species. We need careful study to know which species can be introduced, and where." [Careful study? But you just said we need to change our immigration policy. Won't that make it more difficult?] “But unless we open our borders, and our hearts, to these refugee species, they will die.” [Hey, weren’t these your earlier words? “If you move frogs from one place to another that already has frogs, the immigrants will compete with the natives, and you can possibly lose native frog populations.” What if you introduce a frog that competes with the coqui? Or what if the coqui competes with the frog you are trying to introduce? This is getting complicated and probably needs careful study. Good idea]

    “We caused their problems. Their fate is in our hands.” [But why stop at frogs? What do you have against lemurs?!? The Hawaiian Islands are renowned for their lack of lemur predators too. Hey, I think I just gave you the subject for your next article. You’re welcome]

  2. Not a bad rant, not bad at all. Although the paragraph about the fungus was half true: "But since none are native to Hawaii, none of the eradicators cared. In fact, destroying all the lizards and toads would be considered a plus."

    That's a bit steriotypical. It is common for biological control projects to be abandoned, and the agent destroyed, because the agent was not host specific. Other times, the non-target organisms are important pests themselves. I have not read any of the reports on this fungus, but this sounds like one such example where the non-targets were deemed desireable by enough people to limit (not stop) the project.

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