This past Saturday I travelled with the other American volunteer here, Daniel Keeley, to Torotorofotsy Wetlands, a protected area managed by the conservation organizations, Mitsinjo and Asity Madagascar. Our objective: to find the golden mantella, a little frog native only to this small area of Madagascar. The golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca) is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a critically endangered species. Like many endangered animals, habitat destruction is the biggest threat to the species, and the devastating chytrid fungus which has killed off frog populations all over the world may be a factor as well. The golden mantella is one of the rarest frogs in the world and its confinement to only a few local areas makes it the subject of one of Madagascar’s most intensive conservation programs, and one of the biggest amphibian conservation initiatives anywhere in the world.
Daniel and I met our local guide from Association Mitsinjo at the train station in Andasibe where we were picked up by a local driver. As I opened the door of the old Jeep Grand Cherokee, the rusted handle popped right off in my hand. I knew then that we were in for a wild ride! We jostled along the dirt potholed road up towards Torotorofotsy, passing by lush jungles and scenic rivers. The busted odometer on the dash fluctuated wildly between 10 and 160 km/hour. We made it to the end of the road (if you could call it a road) and continued on foot towards the mantella site. We crossed a creaky makeshift footbridge over a chocolate milk-colored river which sagged alarmingly under the weight of our feet.
We reached the site in the wetlands known to be the main habitat of the mantella and our guide led us down a narrow path to a muddy swamp with dense underbrush complete with tangled vines that seemed to literally reach out and snag your feet as you walked. We stopped and listened for the tell-tale clicking sounds that the frogs produce but were met only with silence. The golden mantella, like many of Madagascar’s frogs are only active during the wet season from about October to January when they breed. Beginning around the end of April, they all bed down for hibernation, remaining underground through the drier, cooler months of the Malagasy winter. Seeing as we visited on April 13, our shot at finding one was slim.
We looked all around the area but to no avail. Our guide led us onwards towards a vast expanse of reed beds where we saw several species of bird. It was shocking to see the extent of forest degradation incurred in the areas surrounding the frog habitat. Not 200 meters from the main area where the frogs were hibernating was a large circular hole drilled into the ground: a gold mining site. We passed two more along the path, and then came to an area of rainforest that had been heavily deforested. Trees were cut down, the understory was defiled, and many invasive plants had taken over, leaving the site looking like an ugly gangrenous scar in an otherwise beautiful jungle. It was very sobering to see just what kinds of threats these little frogs face.
Although we saw no frogs in the wild, we stopped at the educational facility managed by Mitsinjo where they house a few different amphibian species. Mitsinjo has successfully reared the golden mantella in captivity since 2012, and reintroduced individuals into the wild both in areas with current known populations and in areas where records indicate that the species was historically found. This program is funded and supported by other organizations and zoological facilities all over the world, ensuring a kind of ark for the species where the captive population can grow and eventually be reintroduced into the wild.
Overall this was an incredible experience, seeing in person the actual habitat where the species lives, and witnessing firsthand the obstacles that threaten its survival. It was refreshing to see just how dedicated the people at Association Mitsinjo are to conserve this little frog, and the amount of scientific research and husbandry efforts that go into the ultimate goal of saving the golden mantella from extinction.