Building Noah´s Arks for Panama´s Amphibians with Heidi Ross Griffith

The chytrid fungus is a deadly pathogen that is wiping out amphibian populations worldwide, and threatening many species in Panama with extinction. The El Valle de Anton Conservation Center (EVACC) is part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation (PARC) Project, and their mission is to save these frogs. The project collects amphibians from the wild and houses them in shipping containers transformed into true conservation arks for threatened species. Many endemic species such as the Panama Golden Frogs and several species of Harlequin frogs are kept and bred in these arks. Heidi Ross is the Director of EVACC and in charge of the day to day operations of the centre.

Limosa Harlequin Frog ©Brian Gratwicke

Limosa Harlequin Frog ©Brian Gratwicke

How did you become involved with conservation?

Conservation was a theme I grew up around. My parents were both educators and my father is an avid sportsman. My brother and I would accompany him while hunting for roughed grouse around our country home as well as ice fishing in the wintertime. I remember watching very intently as he cleaned the grouse and was always very interested in seeing what the bird was eating, and as we walked through the woods my dad made us aware of the trees and plants around us. The whole cycle of the forest was intriguing to me. I feel very fortunate to have these types of childhood memories.

How did the EVACC centre begin and how did you become involved with it?

There was a call to action in 2004. The chytrid fungus was hitting amphibian populations in a wave-like pattern moving from west to east, and in some cases led to

the local extirpation of populations of multiple species. The Houston Zoo decided to take action by building a facility that would be able to breed Panamanian species in-country. In 2005 construction of this facility began. Edgardo Griffith, my now husband, is a Panamanian herpetologist, and was working in the area of El Valle de Anton when he began to find dead and dying frogs in streams.

He made a call to the Houston Zoo to let them know what was going on, and they asked him if he could lead the rescue of the frogs while the facility was being finished. I was in-between jobs at the time (having just finished serving in the United States Peace Corps) and volunteered at the rescue and triage effort that Griffith spearheaded in a local hotel. Hundreds of volunteers from dozens of institutions came to El Valle to help in the early days, and slowly those numbers dwindled down; it ended up with Edgardo and I doing all of the work.

Screenshot 2015-02-20 at 10.33.45

Could you tell me a bit about your work at EVACC?

My role and responsibilities over the years have changed.  Today, I oversee the whole project that encompasses the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.  My main responsibility is to make

sure that the frogs have everything they need to not only survive their captive conditions, but thrive and breed in them as well.  Their health, diet, and needs are always pushing my daily and monthly schedule.  Breeding season peaks and checking and maintaining everything from their enclosures to the quality of their water – is part of my daily routine. Making sure we have a good team in place to cater to the needs of the frogs is also a huge part of my job.  My husband and I started this project by doing all of the daily chores, and this has given me a great insight into how we can better manage time and staff to get the best end product for the frogs.  Community outreach and environmental education are also tightly wound in the fabric of our project…to be able to amplify the message of the plight of the amphibians is important.  

The centre is part of the PARC project – what have been the major accomplishments of the project so far? What have been the major problems or struggles?

The major accomplishment has been the successful breeding of eight species of endangered amphibians here in Panama. We faced many challenges and problems along the way beginning with having to produce all of the food for the amphibians. Capacity building was a struggle we also faced and overcame. Our team at EVACC is seven large now.

Screenshot 2015-02-20 at 10.33.54

Amphibian Rescue Pod ©Brian Gratwicke.

Are there any plans for amphibian reintroductions in Panama in the near future?

We have many milestones to overcome before we start the reintroductions, however we do have the hope that we can begin in 5-7 years.

How important are the volunteers at EVACC?

The centre used to rely heavily on volunteers in the early days and they were very important. In recent years we have gone away from using volunteers as we wanted to build team capacity in-country. Volunteers are wonderful for our staff to meet and share ideas with other like-minded individuals. They are also helpful when we have specific projects designed and need extra helping hands. They are also powerful tools in spreading the word about what we are doing here in Panama.

What would your advice be for people wishing to work in conservation?

My advice to people wishing to work in conservation is to embrace the passion you have for whatever it is that brings you to the conservation field. Let that passion fill you and inspire you. Conservation, in my experience, has its ups and downs, and what keeps me motivated during the downs is my passion and the inspiration I have embraced from the forests of over a decade ago that were filled with amphibians. What drew me to the amphibians in Panama was the fact that the forests were going silent and I was in a position to do something about it.


About the author


This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Marta Cálix. Marta is doing an Internship with Flora and Fauna International working on their Global Trees Campaign. She comes from Portugal and has a special interest in threatened species reintroductions and protected area management.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Organisational Manager